74 Interview: National Parents Union’s Keri Rodrigues on Public School Disenrollment Amid the COVID Crisis

See previous 74 Interviews: Four Black mothers on parent activism and self-determination, school finance advocate Rebecca Sibilia on America’s “jacked up” school funding system and the full archive of 74 interviews.

America’s education system continues to reckon with the enormous disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although some students and families became well-acclimated with the distance learning process overall, many others found it challenging—and often impossible—to participate in because of persistent barriers like job losses, lack of stable housing, insufficient internet access and dysfunctional devices. And across the country, educators quickly became aware of a widespread trend: children were flat-out missing from school, virtual or otherwise. Some parents had turned to homeschooling or pods; others enrolled their children in private schools that opened in-person learning, and some moved to distant cities or states where they felt their children would have a better chance learning.

Comprehensive national data is not yet available to show the full scope of disenrollment from public schools, but throughout the current school year, individual districts from Florida to Alaska and points in between reported significant enrollment declines ranging into the tens of thousands.

To examine these issues from the perspective of parents, the Progressive Policy Institute’s Curtis Valentine sat down for a Q&A with Keri Rodrigues of the National Parents Union, who shared her thoughts on the impact of parents pulling children out of schools during the pandemic.

On Wednesday, April 21 at 1 p.m. ET, Rodrigues will join other experts in an online panel discussion led by Valentine and co-sponsored by The 74 and PPI, entitled “Where are All the Students?: Dis-Enrollment in America.” Also on the panel will be Hailly Korman of Bellwether Partners, Ray Ankrum of Riverhead Charter Schools, Colorado State Senator James Coleman and senior reporter Linda Jacobson of The 74. Click here to register and join the official Zoom, or watch the livestream by either following The 74 on Facebook, or refreshing this page at 1 p.m. ET when we’ll embed the stream in progress.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:

Q: Why is disenrollment of American students from public schools a topic important to parents?

A: It’s interesting. I don’t know that we discuss disenrollment as disenrollment. I think what we see is that parents are really disenfranchised. They are very concerned about what they’ve seen over the past 18 months from our public school systems, and they’ve been to the Promised Land of being able to choose different options that work differently or better for their kids. So, now I think that they understand there are different options and different scenarios available to them and they’re willing to exercise those options, especially in light of the fact that they’re very concerned about the long-term impact that the pandemic and learning loss is going to have on their children’s educational trajectory.

The fact that there might be another opportunity, a better opportunity, available in a different setting, is now on their radar. So, the idea of un-enrolling and enrolling someplace else is now available to them and all options are on the table.

Q: On Wednesday, my project, the Reinventing American Schools Project, is going to partner with The 74 on a webinar where you will be one of our panelists. Our panel also includes a researcher, a school leader, a politician, and a journalist. Why is it important to have a parent voice in this discussion?

A:  I don’t know how you have a conversation about education, let alone reinventing education, without a panel that includes parents. We are the second most important stakeholder at the table. The first being our children, the students that we’re trying to get through our education system. We have a lot of information that we’ve collected about our kids, not just over the last 18 months, but during the span of their lifetime, that you really need if you’re going to achieve your goal of getting great outcomes for our kids. If we are all in agreement that that’s what we’re trying to do here, I think it’s critically important that you have our perspective, that you have our observations, that you understand our hopes and our fears, our concerns, and you get us on board. Because frankly, if we’re going to get our kids back on track, you can’t do that without parents and families.

Q: Has the discussion on disenrollment been given the attention it deserves?

A: I don’t think so, because I think that we have a tendency in education to, even during a period of limited disruption, want to just morph back into what’s comfortable, what’s familiar, a status quo that seems to work, and be very comfortable for the adults that run the system. Now, parents have really been to the Promised Land of seeing that they have choices and options, and watching how their kids learn, and how they don’t learn. When they engage, when they don’t engage. They’ve heard a lot that they like and a lot that they don’t like. So, I think that this has got to be a wake-up call, not just for parents and families, because frankly they’re making some really serious choices right now.

I talked to families all day today who are making choices about private schools, keeping their kids home in pandemic pods, homeschooling, all of this, all of these different options. And I don’t think our systems are prepared for the fact that parents now understand they have options and they will unenroll. That’s going to hit them in the pocket. Gone are the days of treating our children as just line items and per pupil expenditures that you feel you’re owed from the state budget. Parents are exercising their right to say, “No, we’re not going to put our kids into the public education system, because frankly we don’t trust you to do a good enough job.” The only way it seems like the system is going to learn from that lesson is by being hit in the pocket directly. You need to be in conversation with parents and you need to treat us respectfully, because fundamentally the option is ours. And if we find a better option by necessity or out of fear, because we don’t trust you to catch our kids up and help us to overcome this challenge, we’re going to take that option. It’s going to force the system to have to change because the budget is going to change.

Q: So what’s been missing from this discussion on disenrollment?

A: I think what’s been missing is an obvious correlation between needing to be in relationship with parents, families, and community, and rebuilding that trust, so that we’ll be willing to re-engage with schools. I think systems really take for granted that we’re just going to show up and do whatever we’re told. And the fact of the matter is, the alarm bell is sounding, and people are starting to say, “Well, hold on a second. What if the kids don’t come back? What’s going to happen?What’s going to happen to our budgets, to this comfortable status quo that we’ve grown so accustomed to?”

Things are going to have to change. And a lot of that comes down to, again, have we done the work of repairing the relationship between schools, and parents and families? Do we acknowledge the fact that there is now deep mistrust based on the interjection of politics into school reopening conversations and remote education situations, and how we’ve been serving our kids? I mean, even the idea around how many hours of live instruction our kids are getting. The asynchronous versus synchronous debates, and how our kids have been served. Families have seen that our kids were thrown to the wayside in many, many areas, and were not served well. And that has led to deep mistrust and a further damaging of a relationship, which in many communities was already broken without any kind of restorative justice. So, until there’s acknowledgement of that deep mistrust, the wounding of that relationship, parents may be willing to exercise those options.

As a result, this is going to have a consequence on the school districts budgets, because when our kids don’t show up, you don’t get that per pupil expenditure. You don’t get that money that you feel like you’re owed and adjustments are going to have to be made. There will be a reckoning.

A: So for those who tune in on Wednesday’s enrollment webinar in collaboration with the 74, what do you hope they will take away from it?

Keri: I hope that people are willing to come with an open mind and an open heart and are willing to recognize the fact that parents are really upset, frustrated, and fearful. That comes from a deep love for our children and we’ve got to be able to trust you. So, let’s have an honest conversation about what was lost, mistakes that were made, and how we’re going to do this together. If you want to do this in partnership with us, that’s the way to start rebuilding a relationship with parents and families, but you can’t come to it with a predisposed idea, or a set agenda, saying, “Well, this is ultimately what we’re going to do to your children, come hell or high water.” If you really want to engage with parents and families, you have to listen to us honestly. You’ve got to be able to take feedback. You’ve got to be able to acknowledge mistakes, and be willing to engage in a dialogue, and co-create what an equity-infused educational recovery is going to look like. If we can do that together and start that with this conversation, we may end up getting somewhere.

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