ERN Q&A with National Parents Union’s Keri Rodrigues on States’ Plans for ARP Funds

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January 31, 2022

ERN’s Nicholas Munyan-Penney sat down with National Parents Union President Keri Rodrigues to discuss Massachusetts’s ARP plan, her observations and concerns as a parent leader and advocate, and areas of opportunity. The following transcript has been edited for brevity.

Education Reform Now: Our analysis gave Massachusetts, your home state, our highest rating for the contents of their state plan, but we also know that implementation and things on the ground may be different. What have you been hearing from parents and other folks in the state about how plans are being developed for spending ARP dollars in the state? Are there disconnects between stated intent and action?

Keri Rodrigues: I want to applaud Massachusetts for having a big vision for what is needed, really creating the urgency, so that we could capture these federal dollars and bring them home to Massachusetts. However, the problem is that the dollars are not really spent on the state level, they’re spent on the local level, and that is where we’re having a bottleneck. 

I think we have a lot of superintendents that are very nervous about how to spend this money. Some of them don’t even know how to spend it. And what gets frustrating is that we also see them having this tendency to worry about, “Ohmygosh, we’ve got to put some of this money away in a rainy day fund because what if something happens. We are never going to get these resources again. We should just save them and hoard them.” 

But what we as parents and families are saying is that it’s raining. It’s raining right now. It has been raining, it’s continuing to rain. It’s a monsoon. Please spend these resources. You’ve got to spend this money instead of holding on to it and hoping that you’ll have it for the next crisis. The crisis is now. 

ERN: Across state plans, we found very inconsistent evidence that states were engaging in robust, genuine stakeholder engagement to develop their plans. As a representative of a key stakeholder group, what has been your experience engaging with state and/or district leaders about ARP planning? What about the experience of your members, whom we know reach beyond Massachusetts?

KR: With very limited exceptions, it has been more of the same transactional, box-checking that we saw in parent engagement settings pre-pandemic.

We’ve done polling throughout the last two years that has consistently said not only are we engaged and plan to be engaged, we look at this as a moment to really disrupt the status quo and reimagine education.

So it’s been incredibly disappointing when we ask parents, “Do you know that this money is coming into your District? Have you felt it? Has anybody talked to you about how this money should be spent?” And the vast majority of parents are saying, no, that they haven’t been engaged in that way. 

One of our leaders, Vivett Dukes from New York, says all the time, “If I won the lottery tomorrow and I won a million bucks, my house would look a lot different. I’d get new living room furniture. I may not even live in this house anymore.” But unfortunately, we feel like we’re living in the same house, with the same living room furniture, and nothing has changed, even though we hit the lottery when it comes to education resources. 

In terms of the direct engagement and co-collaboration, Minneapolis is a perfect example of how it’s just a box-checking activity. We have mobilized lots of parents on the ground who have been consistently showing up at school board meetings, providing feedback, and actually offering solutions, like a literacy curriculum that’s based in the science of reading because the one that we have been using for the past twenty years has caused a literacy crisis.

But when we got down to the district it was the same old, same old. Rolling out the same tired PowerPoint that had been cooked up by some fancy conference room table group and just basically saying, “This is what we’ve come up with. Now you’ve seen it.” We then followed up and went to the next school board meeting with the expectation that that PowerPoint was going to change. And it had not. None of our feedback, not even the tiniest tweaks, were incorporated. 

And, frankly, what was very comical is that they also provided a slide that had all of these stakeholders that they had “engaged” in this process. So we took a snapshot of that slide and all of the names of the people and the groups that they engaged to develop this plan. And we called them and said ”Did you see any of your changes?” Because we didn’t see any of ours. Half of them didn’t even know what we were talking about. 

ERN: Many states also said they planned to invest in addressing the social-emotional and mental health needs of students. Pennsylvania is even requiring districts to invest in additional mental health professionals. What evidence have you seen of students’ mental health being addressed by schools this year? 

KR: So I think Colorado has also done a great job.They actually have a website where you can get mental health support. I’m a little concerned that they’re thinking three mental health visits are going to solve it for a kid who has been through a time of trauma, but it’s better than the nothing we had before. And hopefully when they find success from people actually engaging with that system, they’re going to want to invest more money in it, because it’s just a pilot at this point. 

But generally in terms of mental health support, it’s been really disappointing that our kids have to get to the point where they’re breaking down in class, where we’re seeing increased rates of suicide, increased rates of violent incidents in school and out of school. We’re seeing physical fights, we’re seeing increased disciplinary actions, which are always disproportionate against children of color and children in low-income areas. 

86% of American families identified, in our earliest polls when we were just beginning the shutdown, that their top concern—and it remains true to this day—is mental health supports for our children. 

But we did not see a lot of that investment in guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers. Or the excuse is “The jobs are open, but no one is taking them.” Well, incentivizing those people, making sure that it’s a job that they can take economically, these are the reasons why we got all of these resources from the federal government. 

But we’ve also seen parents and families and communities step up and say we’re willing to help here. We’re willing to step in. And you’ve seen folks like our friends Dads on Duty or our friends at The Oakland Reach who turned themselves into literacy coaches. You have all these innovations and the willingness of the community and families to step up, but there’s a fear factor around whether we should do this. 

ERN: Is there anything specific that you think may be stopping districts and schools from embracing these innovations? 

KR: I think there’s a whole bunch of things. I think it’s union protections that oftentimes will keep administrators from opening up the door to maybe parents who have ideas and want to help and be supportive and all it would take is a stipend. The potential conflict that we see with unions is certainly a problem. It gets into this circle that has nothing to do with kids and what they need right now.  

We should be using this money to incentivize people to get into classrooms. It’s just a no-brainer. Creating roadblocks in this moment from getting people to staff these positions, that’s unconscionable.

ERN: In addition to innovation, one of the things we’re focused on is ensuring that funds are targeted to students that need them most. One positive finding from our analysis was that most states say they plan to use data to identify which students need the most support and target interventions. Have you or your parent network seen any evidence that interventions are getting to students that need them most? 

KR: I think it’s too early to say. I think that they talk a good game. People love to shove the word equity into literally everything. It’s the word to use right now. Whether they actually know what that means remains to be seen. 

In Massachusetts, we, the parents of Massachusetts, wrote language into the Student Opportunity Act around every district having to come up with a three-year plan to address the achievement gap within their district. It was based on a menu of best practices, and there were supposed to be accountable metrics and transparency. 

What I see them doing, unfortunately, is watering all of that down and using the pandemic as an excuse. We are not seeing concrete plans. We’re not seeing clear targets that districts should be trying to achieve. It’s turned into more of like a paperwork and compliance process than the opportunity to look forward and say we as a community have a goal of ensuring that every black and brown child in our community is going to be proficient by the year 2030, and here’s how we’re going to do it step-by-step and here are our goals. We’re not seeing that kind of forward-thinking innovation and leadership. And that comes from the top. 

ERN: One of the assumptions behind our work at ERN is that advocates can make a difference in ways that benefit students and families at the state and local levels. Do you have examples of COVID-related policy changes that have been made as a result of collaboration with or pressure from advocacy groups? What do you see as the biggest areas of potential for future advocacy work? 

KR: The way you find success in being an education justice advocate is by really engaging with families and with parents who are directly impacted, so they are collaboratively co-creating all of the work that we do. And when we do that, it belongs to them. 

It’s not just showing up and testifying or telling a sad story. Like here in Massachusetts, the Student Opportunity Act came to pass because we killed the Promise Act, which would just be a blank check to districts saying, “okay, here’s a flood of money, and you folks that created the school-to-prison pipeline, hope you figure it out. Here’s some more money to do that.” 

So we had to literally burn the house down and rebuild it from scratch and put that language in there. The parents wrote that language around transparency and accountability. And they marched it into the Joint Committee on Education and shut the state house down three times, testified in multiple languages, met with the Joint Committee chairs and said this is the language that we want. And when they came back to us with “what does transparency mean,” we had a definition, and we demanded it. 

In Minneapolis parents are not only marching in with a solution, demanding answers, demanding accountability, they’re demanding seats. We’ve gotten two National Parents Union members elected to the Board of Education in Minneapolis. 

And that’s going to continue to happen, where you have parents who are not just talking a good game, demanding a solution. If you’re not going to change the policy, we will change the players and change the policy ourselves. 

ERN: How can advocates at the national level be supportive of the co-collaborating work your parents are doing? 

KR: If you want to have true collaboration and true transformational relationships where you’re really doing this work together, don’t bring us in after the cake is baked. Bring us when we’re deciding if we want a cake or a hamburger, because we may need a hamburger where you think we need a cake. That’s the part of the process where you bring the folks who are close to the pain, who are going to be directly impacted into the conversation. And don’t be afraid that they’re going to be honest with you and tell you “hold on.” You may not have the right solution. 

We all assume that education policy folks are very well intended, but you don’t have all of the context, and it’s about approaching this work with a spirit of humility that understands that the people closest to the pain should be a part of the solution and have important context. This is going to have a direct influence on our children, on our lives, on our communities. And that should be treated with respect, instead of looked down upon as being not worthy of consideration. 

View the rest of the Q&A here.

Read “Driving Towards Equity”—ERN’s full analysis of all 50 states’, plus DC’s, applications for ARP funds—here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.