Editor’s note: This commentary from Gwen Samuel, founder of the Connecticut Parents Union, a grassroots advocacy group that recruits and prepares parents to harness their collective voices to protect their children’s educational rights, appeared recently on the EdChoice blog.
Dear Dr. Cardona,
Congratulations on your nomination to become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that we were sitting in your office here in Meriden discussing a bullying issue regarding my child. You were so attentive, and while I might not have been happy with all the decisions made, I always appreciated that you took the time to actually listen and recommend some appropriate supports — in a timely manner.
Your willingness to listen is a huge asset, and it’s why I wasn’t always *that* thorn-in-your-side mom advocating for my child.
I must be honest, as a Black parent, I was very surprised when I heard you were going to be President-elect Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education. I can’t imagine how it feels going from leading a school district of almost 8,000 students — 10 percent Black and 55 percent Latino/Hispanic — to leading our state department of education to leading the federal education agency all within a couple years.
I don’t have to tell you that we face some big, serious challenges — for the students here in Meriden and the millions across our country.
As you embark on this next chapter of your life, I wanted to pull up a virtual chair in your office like old times and offer five pieces of advice:
Keep diverse voices front and center.
Historically, my journey as a Black mom looks and feels different from what White, Latino, Asian and other parents and guardians encounter. Invite us all to the table, and make sure you hear and take into account our feedback. Listen to families, who are directly impacted by your choices, before you listen to anyone else. We’re the ones who know our kids best, and it’s easy to lose that perspective when you’re making big, blanket decisions from an office in Washington.
Ensure that all parents have options.
There’s no delicate way to say this, but the traditional public school system doesn’t meet every child’s needs — that is a fact — and parents and our children don’t have time to sit around and wait for the system to recognize and respond to this fact. There are lots of schooling types out there, and they should all be part of the mix, especially during this unprecedented pandemic where so many kids’ educational needs are not being met due to mass school closures.
That conversation takes a political turn far too frequently, so I’d urge you to imagine you’re sitting face-to-face with a parent like me before you erect any barriers that make it harder for families to get what they need academically. The financially stable families have always had a choice in K-12 education; the rest of us are looking for leaders to help change the educational landscape so we can have that same kind of access, too.
Make space for innovation.
If this pandemic has shown us parents anything, it’s that we are resilient and able to adapt, especially when it comes to schooling. It’s also painted a clear picture of the haves and have-nots when it comes to K-12 education in America. Tens of thousands of students — many low-income and from communities of color — have literally gone missing from the system; we have to find them and get them back on track.
In order to do that, we have to maintain our innovative spirit and meet them where they are instead of forcing them to fit into a system that’s been letting them down and leaving them behind for generations — well before the pandemic.
Keep states in the driver’s seat.
Your background in our Meriden school district and running a state department of education is critical as you step into this federal role. You know how much things are different from one district to the next — and how much state policies and priorities shape the way parents, students, educators and schools interact.
A top-down approach to K-12 education is not what we need right now; rather, I hope you’ll survey the state-by-state terrain, see what’s working and hold up those examples for others to replicate. Highlight what works best for children!
Watch your back.
I say this to you with my mom hat on. Washington is filled with special interests and people who are entrenched and committed to doing things the way they’ve always been done because that’s how they earn a paycheck. I’m not mad at them for that, but make no mistake: They don’t represent my interests as a Black mom from Connecticut who’s trying to do what’s right by my family and other families.
Parents don’t have a highly paid lobbyist. It’s just us, and that’s how millions of parents across America feel. Those who depend on a system to make a living will do anything to defend that system. Be wary. Be skeptical. Be there for us as we parents will be there for you — working side-by-side.
I’ve always believed that families need to be part of a student’s academic journey, and the research supports my belief. That’s why I founded the Connecticut Parents Union, and that’s why I’ll keep fighting for my kids, kids in our home state and kids across the nation.
If we’re not doing everything we can to put power in the hands of parents — you from Washington, me back here in Meriden — then we’re not doing our jobs. Our kids deserve the best we as adults have to offer them to ensure a self-governing, hopeful future.