Maurice Cunningham: The “National Parents Union” Is Not What You Think

Retired professor of political science Maurice Cunningham recently read an article about Randi Weingarten that quoted Kelli Rodrigues as leader of the National Parents Union, and presumably a spokesperson for American parents. Cunningham decided to inform Michelle Goldberg, the author of the article in the New York Times, that Ms. Rodrigues is not exactly a representative parent leader.

He wrote:

Dear Ms. Goldberg,

I read your story on AFT president Randi Weingarten with interest, especially the portion about National Parents Union. I have been researching NPU and similar organizations for the past six years.

Thus it was good to see you accurately characterize NPU “as funded by the pro-privatization Walton Family Foundation” but there is even more about the story of its president, Keri Rodrigues, than she or NPU lets on. So far as I know she did work for SEIU as a communications coordinator from 2008-2014 but since then she has worked for a succession of Walton-funded anti-union fronts: as Executive Vice President of Strategy and Communications of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) from Nov. 2014-2015, state director of Families for Excellent Schools Inc. in 2015-2016 (omitted from her Linkedin page), president of Massachusetts Parents United from Dec. 2016-present, president of Massachusetts Parents Action from May 2017-present, and president of NPU from March 2019-present. In a concept paper sent to the Walton Family Foundation in 2019, Ms. Rodrigues and her allies specifically cited as a reason for funding NPU that “The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the National Parents Union as being able to take on the unions in the national and regional media, and eventually on the ground in advocacy fights.”

I first became aware of Ms. Rodrigues in 2016 when I was following the dark money awash in the 2016 charter schools ballot initiative in Massachusetts. She was working for the IRS 501(c)(3) Families for Excellent Schools Inc. and I was exposing the millions in dark money flowing through the IRS 501(c)(4) Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy into the Great Schools Massachusetts ballot committee. After the 62-38% drubbing GSM received in that contest, the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance investigated and ordered FESA to disclose its true donors, to shut down, and to pay the largest civil forfeiture in OCPF history. It also placed severe restrictions on the political activities of Families for Excellent Schools Inc., which was the largest donor to FES Advocacy.

One thing that interests me is what I like to call the “creation story” of privatization fronts. For instance in the Walton Family Foundation story you link to in your story, we see Ms. Rodrigues professes that “I started talking to other parents in my community at coffee shops and libraries and decided we were going to organize.” But the 2016 campaign ended in November, Ms. Rodrigues claims to have started Massachusetts Parents United a month later, and the Waltons poured in several hundred thousand dollars in 2017, mostly through Education Reform Now Inc. (the Walton-funded sister to DFER) as MPU secured its tax status. From 2018-2020, the Waltons put $1.85 million into MPU, with $450,000 of that apparently going to help start up NPU in 2020.

NPU has a similar “creation story”: two Latina moms start a National Parents Union. And then the Waltons jump in with hundreds of thousands of dollars, joined by foundations operating under the bequests of the Gates, Broads, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Schustermans, Michael Dell, Reed Hastings, John Arnold, and the Vela Education Fund, a joint venture of the Waltons and Charles Koch. Immediately the two moms hired international communications firm Mercury LLC and top Republican and Walton pollster Echelon Insights. It seems a bit suspicious.

So, in 2020 I examined the “parent” organizations that NPU seemed to be claiming as its members on Twitter (NPU has declined to provide me a member list and has never provided a list of member organizations on its web site). I collected seventy organizations or activists that seemed to be part of an organization. I was able to place 64 organizations into categories and found that many were charter school chains or other privatization organizations. I found only four I could categorize as parent organizations, including MPU and one in Minnesota that had organized at the same time as NPU. I’m not aware of any publicly available evidence that NPU represents parents at all. It represents the Waltons and their billionaire co-investors.

As Ms. Rodrigues’s Linkedin profile indicates, she has a B.S. in communications and that has been her role in professional life, not union organizing. Her career with the Waltons has been lucrative. NPU’s Form 990 tax return for 2020 shows that her reportable compensation from NPU in 2020 was $135,769. Reportable compensation from related organizations was $208,207, and estimated amount of other compensation from the organization and related organizations was $34,322. The related organizations are the Walton-funded Massachusetts Parents United and Massachusetts Parents Action. Total compensation across all related organizations for Ms. Rodrigues in 2020 was $378,298. The Form 990 also disclosed that Ms. Rodrigues and COO Tim Langan are engaged. Mr. Langan’s total compensation across related organizations was $248,479 in 2020. Combined total compensation for the two was $626,777.

You were correct to write “Beyond the immediate well-being of families and teachers, the future of public education as we know it is at stake.” Privatizers like the Waltons and their partners are using the Covid crisis as an opportunity to attack and undermine public education. For obvious reasons they can’t become the public face of that activity, so they underwrite Ms. Rodrigues and NPU to masquerade as parent representatives.

Sincerely,

Maurice T. Cunningham

After Cunningham wrote to The Times to complain about the megaphone for a front group for the Waltons, the Hechinger Report published a puff piece about the NPU, mentioning the Waltons but disassociating NPR from the Walton’s anti-public school, anti-union, pro-charter views. The Waltons don’t fund groups that don’t share their ideology.

Unions problems in the United States continues to cause havoc at every turn.

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