K Street, political parents channel advocacy into reopening schools

Crossing partisan lines, families push to get students back in classrooms

Rory Cooper of Purple Strategies on Pennsylvania Ave. SE in September 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rory Cooper of Purple Strategies on Pennsylvania Ave. SE in September 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 9, 2021 at 11:59am

In his day job, Rory Cooper leads corporate and issue advocacy campaigns at the bipartisan consulting firm Purple Strategies. But his most public lobbying effort right now is a personal project: reopening schools.  

Cooper, along with other political parents in and around the nation’s capital, has turned his professional powers of persuasion toward pressuring his local public school district to bring students back into classrooms after a year of COVID-19 closures. 

The debate over pandemic schooling has ignited passion and protest across the nation. But in the D.C. area where some parents hail from K Street, Capitol Hill and candidate campaigns, the volunteer advocates bring a level of polish to rival politically connected teachers’ unions as they seek to sway local and state officials.  

“A lot of the parents work either adjacent to or in government and politics, so there’s a natural grassroots mobilizing environment,” said Cooper, whose three children attend public schools in Fairfax County, Va. 

Loading the player...

“This is very personal to me, and that’s why I’m doing it,” said Cooper, who served as communications director for former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican. “But I’m clearly leaning on relationships and skill sets that I’ve developed over my career in order to help make parents’ voices heard. Parents have a hard time getting their voices heard in an environment that favors unions.”

Partisan politics has permeated the fight over opening school buildings, pitting Democratic-aligned unions against Republicans and conservative groups that advocate taxpayer funding, such as vouchers, for private institutions. The reopening dispute has also divided parents along racial lines, with white parents in favor of returning at greater rates than Black families. Indeed, across the country, neighbors disagree with neighbors, and some families are divided.

The parent advocacy campaigns across the region, which skews Democratic and racially diverse, span the political spectrum. 

Many parents lobbying for a return to schools say they’re frustrated by the politics of the debate, especially last year when President Donald Trump said he wanted buildings to welcome students back, ginning up opposition from liberals. 

But as the all-virtual school days blend and blur and the months pass, many parents say their children are withering. Some, especially those with special needs, find learning online nearly impossible, while other parents confide that their children have become lonely, even depressed, as they struggle with nearly a full calendar year of social isolation away from their peers. 

Health officials have noted that schools can operate with safety measures in place. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said late last month that it found scant transmission of COVID-19 in schools, especially with mask-wearing and social distancing. 

“As a lifelong Montgomery County resident, I am so disappointed how they have handled this pandemic,” said Democratic lobbyist CR Wooters, whose fifth and second graders attend a local public school in a Maryland county that borders Washington. “In my neighborhood, there are two elementary schools. A private school that has been open all year and a public school that has been closed since March. How is that possible? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Tiffany Finck-Haynes of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers said in an email that the group’s position “has been and continues to be, we want kids back in school as quickly as possible, we just want to make sure that our schools have the resources to do it as safely as possible.”

And, of course, many parents, including those in politics and lobbying, have strong feelings that are more in line with the side of teachers’ unions.

Daniel Schuman, a lobbyist for the liberal group Demand Progress, is helping his Arlington, Va., public school kindergartener and second grader navigate virtual learning. “We are as well situated as anyone could be to manage having kids at home, and it’s very hard,” he said. Yet, he added, the dangers of returning to classrooms pose too great a risk in his view.   

Expert analysis 

Karen Simpson, a civil servant in the federal government and a self-described lifelong Democrat, has been active in a group of parents calling for Arlington, Va., public schools to reopen. She said they’re pointing to medical professionals and studies that say the risks of COVID-19 spread with in-person learning can be greatly reduced with masks and other mitigations. 

Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the CDC whom President Joe Biden picked, has said students can return to school even before teachers and staff have been fully vaccinated. Her agency plans to update its guidance on schools in the coming days, she has said.

“We’re not coming up with this out of thin air,” said Simpson, who has a sixth grader and an eighth grader. 

Added Wooters: “At the beginning, we all were in uncharted territory, but now even the CDC says kids should be back in school.” He said his Maryland county “should be moving heaven and earth to find some way to get these kids back in school.”

Simpson said she spends much of her free time writing to local education officials and has drawn on the expertise of other Arlington parents who have backgrounds in advocacy campaigns. 

“I’ve learned a lot from them about lobbying and PR,” she said. 

Though some of the parents — like Cooper, who has appeared on “NBC Nightly News” and written op-eds on the conflict in The Washington Post — have taken a public role in their advocacy, others have remained mostly behind the scenes, drawing on their K Street chops of finding political and policy pressure points. 

Jenna Hamilton, a lobbyist by profession, has put to use some of her grassroots organizing and advocacy skills — helping fellow parents identify and contact local officials, for example, circulating ideas on a closed Facebook page for like-minded Fairfax County parents, dubbed #OpenFCPS. 

The collaboration across party lines and career sectors has been one of the few positive experiences to come out of the pandemic and persistent virtual schooling, she said. 

“What we have in Open FCPS has been this completely organically grown, across-the-political spectrum, single-issue grassroots movement,” said Hamilton, who has a ninth grader in the Fairfax system. “There is a lot of passion among the parents.” 

Hill pressure 

That passion extends to parents who are still working on Capitol Hill. 

Ashley Callen, deputy Republican staff director on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has children in the fourth, seventh and eighth grades in Arlington. 

“I’m not a community organizer type person,” she said. “I’ve never been so passionate about a government decision.” 

She’s part of a group called Arlington Parents for Education, organized in response to school building closures since mid-March. “I love teachers. My mom was a teacher,” she said. But she is frustrated: “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Michele Perez Exner, the communications director for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has a kindergartner and a first grader in Fairfax public schools. While on a run through her neighborhood last fall, she noticed Open FCPS yard signs, as her own frustration was growing with virtual school.

“I do appreciate the effort that individual teachers we have have put in,” she said. “I think my kids are going to be fine.”

But, she said, having grown up in a home with Spanish-speaking parents, the daughter of a truck driver and factory worker, she is increasingly concerned about what might happen to students like hers. So she started getting involved in the Open FCPS movement during her off hours. 

“If this would’ve happened to us, I don’t know if I would’ve been where I am today,” she said. “Are they missing out on the American dream that I took part in?” 

Even as many of the D.C.-area school systems plot a partial return for students to their classrooms and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said Friday that students need in-person school by March 15, the parent advocates say their efforts are far from over. 

And some of the parents are weighing other options.

Cooper, for one, said he’s looking at Catholic schools for the fall.