The racial demographics within traditional public schools in the U.S. are undoubtedly changing, and it’s two Latina parents living on opposite ends of the country who are together leading the movement for nationwide school-accountability. What’s even more impressive is that they’ve invited African American parents, parents with children who have learning disabilities and everyone else who cares about educational justice to join them.
On a Friday night in New Orleans, Louisiana, a diverse group of parents unapologetically disrupted one of America’s most famous entertainment districts—the French Quarter. With a traditional second line brass band at their helm, parents marched down Bourbon Street and shouted “Death to the Status Quo” (referring to America’s broken and unequal education system) into the ether. Their rhythmic chants commanded the attention of sightseers and locals alike, while their alluring black t-shirts that boasted messages such as “Our kids are not entering your school to prison pipeline” and “Black kids deserve education, not incarceration” sparked thought-provoking conversations amongst the crowd.
According to a recent report by brightbeam, even in America’s most progressive cities, students of color are still performing at academically inferior levels when compared to their White counterparts.
Keri Rodriguez, co-founder of the National Parents Union (NPU), declared just before the march that “Education is supposed to be the equalizer, and it is not equal. And we’re not going to stand by and allow our children to have to be survivors in public education.“
Alma Marquez, NPU’s other co-founder, Rodriguez and others gathered in New Orleans for their newly founded parent organization’s first national conference, poised to develop a plan to challenge the inequities in public education. Parents representing all 50 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico attended the conference to lend their support, share their stories and draft bylaws to guide the new organization.
Among those standing with them were the former mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, Ilyasah Shabazz, the daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, and Peter Cunningham, the former Assistant Secretary for the Department of Education under the Obama Administration. Cunningham is also the founder of Education Post, where Rodriquez and Marquez met two years prior to the lunch of NPU.
Per their union’s website, NPU is “a network of highly effective parent-organizations and grassroots-activists across the country that are united behind a set of common goals and principles to channel the power of parents and families.”
Despite the distance separating Marquez and Rodriguez, dwelling within those 2,982 miles are hundreds—perhaps thousands—of resilient parents with narratives of injustice who are now members of the new parent movement.
No Child Should Be Denied a Quality Education
Hamlet and Olesia Garcia are two NPU parents with an encounter that echoes the horrors of the 1950s. At the NPU’s first convention, intentionally held at the black-owned NOPSI Hotel, Mr. Garcia was emotional as he explained his family’s experience of educational injustice.
“In 2012, my wife and I were charged with a felony for sending our daughter to a district school that was outside our neighborhood, even though my wife and daughter lived in the district at the time of enrollment,” he explained.
Both parents were arrested and charged with sending their 5-year-old daughter to Pine Hill Elementary school in Lower Moreland Township in Montgomery Country, Pennsylvania while living in Philadelphia. According to the last census, Lower Moreland was 88.2% White, 1% Black, and 1.8% Latinx. The Garcia’s are of Afro-Latino origin—Cuban Americans.
“The school claimed that we stole a public education,” Mr. Garcia continued. He ended his speech by saying, “I know from personal experience that education and school choice are issues of civil rights” and that “no child should be denied a good education because of their zip code, the color of their skin or social-economic background.”
Unfortunately, there were many stories just like Mr. Garcia’s shared at the NPU convention—each one equally painful to hear.
Educational Justice Denied
After Kelly Williams-Bolar’s recent divorce from an abusive husband, her father, Edward Williams, suggested that she and her two girls, then ages 12 and 9, move to the suburbs with him. The girls were enrolled in the Copley-Fairlawn School District, a high performing division of suburban schools. Although the school population is mostly White, the Williams girls are Black.
“It was a beautiful school. Everything that you would want your kids to have,” she said at the podium.
Williams-Bolar knew the meaning of quality education. She was a University of Akron student studying to become an educator, and she worked as a teacher’s aide in Akron, Ohio. Moreover, her daughters had already experienced the taste of a blighted and academically-inferior inner-city school district. Enrolling her daughters into a better school system was now an option since her father lived in Copley-Fairlawn.
Due to her college obligations, Williams-Bolar stayed in Akron, while the girls spent half their time in Akron and the other half in Copley-Fairlawn to attend the better school.
The district hired a private investigator when they suspected that Williams-Bolar didn’t live in the community, notwithstanding that the girls spent ample time with their grandfather within the district’s boundaries.
The school then issued both Williams-Bolar and her father, Mr. Williams, letters stating that they had clear and convincing evidence that Williams-Bolar didn’t live in the district and that she needed to unenroll her kids immediately.
“In 2011, me and my father both were charged and indicted for grand theft and tampering with documents. They sent me to jail.” Her daughters went without their mother for 10 days while Williams-Bolar served her time. In an interview with the Atlantic, she said that she sobbed for hours and lost 15 pounds while in custody.
“All I am is a mother,” she declared—a mother who was made into an example for merely trying to get her daughters into a better school district. Educational justice was denied to both girls when they were sent back into the failing school district in Akron.
“My father ended up a hundred miles away in a prison, shackled to a bed, incoherent, his body breaking down—and he died alone. His last breath was alone, and no one in there knew who he was,” she said emotionally. “He was a dad and that’s all he wanted to be.” Mr. Williams simply wanted his granddaughters to have better educational opportunities. Since her experience, Williams-Bolar has become an advocate for educational justice and has recently joined NPU.
NPU Priorities in Education
At their New Orleans Parent Power convention, amid a racially diverse group with beliefs that expanded across political party lines, NPU passed five top priority initiatives:
- Ensure educational equity for children of color and families with lower incomes.
- Promote parent power or participation.
- Increase access to quality school options.
- Fully fund and support special education.
- Invest in quality pre-k education.
As I reflect on my time in NOLA with the NPU, I know my season of bold leadership has begun. I’m proud of the work we convened to do. I am grateful for the strength of the parents and families I met, for the leaders who took the time to share their wisdom, for the strength, resilience and resistance of my people. And I am grateful to our ancestors and to all who continue fighting for our children. Now, the time has finally come for parents to use their power to stand up and fight for their children.