Parents on a Mission: How One Activist Group Aims to Reclaim American Schools

Parents on a Mission: How One Activist Group Aims to Reclaim American Schools
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Parents Defending Education (PDE) is an advocacy organization founded in response to concerns about the increasing influence of activist agendas in K-12 schools, particularly highlighted during the pandemic. Recently, PDE joined a Title IX lawsuit challenging the Biden Administration’s new rules on including transgender athletes in women’s sports. 鶹ýӳ had a conversation with Nicole Neily, the founder of PDE, about her organization’s objectives in promoting parental engagement and accountability in education, and–more broadly–the organization's efforts to influence the education system.

Can you tell us about the origins of Parents Defending Education (PDE) and what motivated its founding?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was running a free speech group, Speech First, that focused on colleges and universities – but I became increasingly concerned with what I saw happening in our K-12 schools. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, districts across the country sent out missives about systemic racism and their commitment to antiracism, which mystified a lot of families. Unsurprisingly, many people were fearful about pushing back on this messaging. I think back to when I was growing up – schools didn’t send out notes about Rodney King’s beating, or the Iraq War, or elections in general!

During the fall of 2020, the Wall Street Journal ran an with the superintendent of Evanston Public Schools in Illinois, near where I grew up, in which he said he planned to allow black and brown children to return to in-person education before white children because of “anti-racism.” I remember screaming out loud when I read the article because this plan was not only immoral – it was unconstitutional. I decided to form a new organization made up of parents that would be dedicated to protecting K-12 schools through litigation and other means.

In retrospect, I was fairly naïve because I assumed that most districts that engaged in such policymaking did so out of ignorance and didn’t realize they were violating the law. My initial plan included a program of sending dozens of letters to districts to notify them that they needed to course-correct. I assumed that they would, in fact, make good-faith efforts to change their policies. Three years later, however, it’s become abundantly clear that many education bureaucrats at all levels of government disagree with the underlying tenets of equality before the law and seek to not only change the law but to fundamentally transform American society. This is why our organization is needed now more than ever.

What are the key goals and objectives of Parents Defending Education in reclaiming schools from what your website refers to as “harmful activist agendas?”

The first objective is to educate people about what’s taking place in schools. I grew up watching GI Joe cartoons in the 80s, and the end of every episode had a “life lesson” that concluded “and knowing is half the battle.” It struck me during the pandemic that the vast majority of American parents don’t know what their families’ civil rights are in an education setting, nor do they understand how the education system works in general. In the spring of 2020, several of my Democrat friends from Chicago called me to ask how to get their schools to reopen – because they really believed that their elected officials cared about their input. But as we’ve seen in the years since, nothing could be farther from the truth. They cared about their money and their power, but certainly not our children’s welfare or academic achievement.

For decades, parents have been accustomed to dropping their children at the schoolhouse gates, assuming that their children would receive a solid education. But during COVID, families got a window into what their children were learning (or not learning) when Zoom school was in their living rooms. Families were not only unhappy; they were petrified that if they said the wrong thing, they would be the neighborhood QAnon crank for the rest of their lives. So they kept their mouths shut.

Parents Defending Education seeks to demystify the education space, translating policy and legal jargon into English, exposing problems, and investigating how some of these issues arose in the first place.

A second objective is engagement. Education used to be a partnership between schools and parents, working together in the best interest of a child. But today, many families aren’t fully aware of what their children are learning and are held at arms’ length. Parental involvement isn’t – or shouldn’t be – a partisan issue. Sadly, many people simply don’t know where to begin; our collective civic engagement muscles have atrophied from lack of use. At Parents Defending Education, we’ve created guides and portals for people to get involved. This includes basic questions to ask school officials, how to file a civil rights complaint, and comment portals for people to weigh in at the state and federal levels on policy reforms.

Every person has a different level of risk tolerance, so while some people might be willing to speak up at a school board meeting, others might be more reticent to do so. But even the hesitant parent might be willing to have a private conversation with an administrator or even to pass on a tip to us anonymously. Every person can do something. It’s been absolutely incredible over the past few years to watch thousands of people get off the sidelines and say, “If not me, then who – if not now, then when,” knowing full well that they’ll receive blowback from their communities for having the temerity to speak out. Courage is contagious, and we have witnessed so many brave mothers and fathers (and grandparents!) use their voices for the first time.

The final objective is accountability. For far too long, education officials have become accustomed to operating behind closed doors – wasting money on pet projects and then passing nine-figure bond initiatives to make up their shortfalls (while the rest of us must stick to a budget), teaching one-sided lessons, and lowering standards to mask that the quality of education in 2024 is less than it was 30 years ago. Through our tip line and an aggressive public records campaign, we’ve been able to expose what’s really going on and how districts and schools are operating with our tax dollars. If every teacher in America needs to think to him or herself, “Is this lesson plan going to end up on the national news tonight,” it forces them to decide whether their political activism is worth it. If every principal must think, “Do I know what’s going on in my building? Because I’m the one who’s going to be called for comment by the local press,” then they’re going to exercise greater oversight. And if every school board member must think “I’m going to lose my seat if we’re not delivering the educational experience that my constituents expect,” then budget and employment decisions will be made accordingly.

Could you describe some of the specific challenges or issues that PDE seeks to address within the education system?

Over the past three years, the issues have evolved, which is what makes this job interesting – no two days are ever the same! In 2021, nearly all the tips that we received were about race: the 1619 Project, BLM at School, and racially segregated “affinity groups” and “healing circles,” which excluded students and staff from programming based solely on skin color. In 2022 and 2023, most of the tips were about “gender identity”: compelled pronouns, lesson plans, bathrooms and locker rooms, overnight field trips, and athletics. Since 10/7, we’ve fielded hundreds of issues related to antisemitism in K-12 schools, which in my opinion is as pervasive as in higher education but has gone underreported. Outside entities influencing schools is another troubling area – be it foreign funding, progressive foundations, or race and gender consultants advising districts and providing “professional development” training for teachers.

Your organization recently joined a lawsuit against the Biden administration’s new Title IX rule changes. Can you explain the basis of this lawsuit and its significance in protecting students' rights?

A bit of background: Passed in 1972, Title IX is a mere 37 words long, and was written to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex in education settings. (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”) In plain English, this means that an individual must be treated differently than another based on sex. Two decades ago, this was viewed largely in the athletics context.

Immediately upon taking office, the Biden Administration signaled its intent to undo Betsy DeVos’ Title IX rules – issuing guidance and beginning the notice and comment process to codify their radical changes. In 2022 and 2023, PDE submitted formal comments in opposition to these rules, and also created comment portals that helped over 62,000 people submit their own comments (approximately 25% of the total comments filed!).

The final rule was released in April 2024 and was every bit as terrible and illegal as anticipated. The most significant aspect of the rewrite is that the Education Department has redefined the word “sex” to include “sexual orientation and gender identity,” changing the meaning of the statute entirely. In 1972, the word “sex” meant what it still means today – the binary concept – and the Department has no authority to redefine the plain text of the law.

The rule is a direct assault on parental rights, including parents’ right to access their child’s information under FERPA and state laws. In response to public comments which raised concerns that the rule might bar a recipient from treating a student according to their biological sex if requested by the parents to do so, notifying a student’s parents of the student’s gender transition or gender identity, or letting parents access their child’s educational records (including information about their child’s gender identity), the Education Department conceded that the rule can require such results, even when state law guarantees these parental rights. PDE maintains a running of districts that maintain “parental exclusion policies” with regard to students’ gender identities at school; as of May 7, we’ve identified 1,062 districts impacting more than 10.8 million children.

At a minimum, the new rule will force these parents to have difficult discussions about sex and gender identity with their children before the children are ready.

How does the new Title IX regulation affect the core mission of Parents Defending Education, particularly regarding concerns about privacy and due process in schools?

Since the Biden Administration’s rule was released, PDE has fielded more questions and concerns from parents about how this will impact their children and this surge will only worsen as the rule coerces school districts into adopting illegal policies. Before the Biden Administration’s Title IX rulemaking, some schools already had bullying and harassment policies that punished students who “misgendered” their peers, bathrooms and locker rooms were opened up to students based on “gender identity,” and students were housed on overnight field trips accordingly. Thanks to Biden’s rule, these policies will spread to countless more schools.

In what ways does Parents Defending Education collaborate with other organizations or stakeholders to achieve its objectives?

Several of my colleagues and I have worked in and around public policy for many years, which means that we’ve been able to leverage many preexisting relationships with think tanks at the state and national level – as well as federal policymakers, state attorneys general, and reporters.

Our team also works with over 300 parent groups across the country, sharing information and resources and regularly meeting with parent advocates around the country.

How does PDE engage with local communities and parents to raise awareness and advocate for changes in education policies?

Every district is different – so we work with the individuals who send us tips to determine how best to engage. Success means something different to everyone. Some people just want a lesson plan canceled, while others desire different outcomes like leadership changes or policy rescissions. The people who reach out to us know their communities best – so we’ll discuss tactics like which policymakers might be worth approaching (and at what level of government), what to say, whether it might be more constructive to go to the media to exert public pressure, and whether the legal system might be a viable option. We encourage people to start with an open mind by asking questions and to not assume ill will – but also to document their interactions and to elevate their concerns as needed.

Could you share any successful initiatives or outcomes that Parents Defending Education has achieved since its inception?

In 2021, we filed the public records requests that exposed collusion between the National School Board Association and the Biden Administration. Members of Congress and Senators called on both Attorney General Merrick Garland and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to resign, and 26 state affiliates of the NSBA quit the national organization.

In the wake of the NSBA scandal, the Biden Administration created a “National Parents and Families Engagement Council” to give the impression that they actually wanted parental engagement. But in so doing, it violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act because it was neither transparent nor politically balanced. PDE the Education Department in partnership with our friends at America First Legal, and rather than addressing the Council’s deficiencies, the Administration chose to the Council completely – showing that it was little more than a Potemkin village.

PDE successfully Wellesley Public Schools in Massachusetts over racially segregated affinity groups and First Amendment issues; the district agreed to revise its policies.

PDE successfully Linn-Mar Community Schools in Iowa over its parental exclusion and compelled speech policies; the state of Iowa passed a parental notification bill during our suit, but the Eighth Circuit ruled in our favor on speech grounds.

A California district’s plan to put a Planned Parenthood clinic into a local high school was tabled indefinitely after PDE exposed it.

To date, PDE has filed 37 civil rights complaints with the federal Office for Civil Rights; 9 investigations have been opened, 4 resolved when districts agreed to open the segregated programming to all students, and 2 referred to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Dozens of districts have retracted lesson plans after we’ve exposed them, including a Connecticut school walking back a , the Los Angeles Unified School District removing  that said “F*** the Police” and “F*** Amerikkka,” and a Virginia district removing  as a recommended resource.

Looking ahead, what are the key priorities or upcoming projects for Parents Defending Education in the coming year?

Thanks to our tip line and our relationships with parent organizations, we’re able to connect disparate stories to larger trends and identify problems on the horizon.

In the wake of last year’s Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard/UNC decision, we’re now watching education officials at all levels develop workarounds for racial preferences, which is absolutely an issue that will require attention in the future. School officials continue to treat students differently on the basis of race through the use of DEI hiring practices, segregated affinity groups and “healing circles,” because some education activists insist that students learn best from teachers with the same skin color.

Gender identity certainly isn’t going away any time soon – the new Title IX rules are going to be extensively litigated, and we believe they will eventually end up at the Supreme Court.

It’s important to remember that the antisemitism we’re seeing at universities didn’t magically occur when students first step onto college campuses; rather, that hatred is taught at far younger ages, through programs like ethnic studies and other curricula that frames human interaction through the lens of oppressor vs. oppressed.

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