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Show Notes

In this episode, our hosts Bruce Lesley and Messellech “Selley” Looby chat with children’s activist Arnold “Arnie” Fege about the importance of defending public education against attacks both past and present. As a longtime teacher, principal, superintendent, and now president of Public Advocacy for Kids (PAK), a national organization devoted to education and child advocacy, Arnie brings a thorough perspective to education policy and practice. Arnie champions parental engagement, but challenges the motives of so-called “parental rights” groups who want to privatize public education, ban books, and minimize the voices of LGBTQ+ students and students of color. Arnie, who worked with Robert F. Kennedy and served as school desegregation director in Michigan, traces the roots of this movement all the way back to Brown v. Board of Education and efforts to maintain racial segregation in schools.

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Full Transcript

Bruce Lesley  00:01

Hey, Messellech, how are your kids settling back into school?

Selley Looby  00:04

They are back and that’s what’s the most important thing. We got bookbags, new outfits, hair done. So we are settling in.

Bruce Lesley  00:13

How was your relationship with your teachers educators and, and also the PTA? Do you think you’ll join the PTA this year?

Selley Looby  00:20

You know, to be honest, the PTA has always seemed very overwhelming to me. But this year, I think I’m going to jump in and join, I have a really great relationship with all my kids’ teachers. I’m a huge advocate and admirer of all the work and effort that they pour into my kids. And so I try to do my part and pour into them as much as I can. My oldest just started second grade and I feel like now’s the time.

Bruce Lesley  00:44

Yeah, these are the relationships that are so important. It’s that relationship parents have with their teachers and working together really is an important collaboration.

Selley Looby  00:52

Absolutely. I mean, it takes a village.

Bruce Lesley  00:54

From First Focus on Children, this is Speaking of Kids, I’m Bruce Lesley.

Selley Looby  01:04

And I’m Messellech Looby. Speaking of Kids, is a podcast that puts kids at the center of public policy. So Bruce, what we’re really talking about is basically the simple relationship between parents and teachers. And nowhere is that more of a hot button issue right now than in the idea of parental rights parents right. We hear the phrase all the time. When we use it, it sounds innocuous, right? But it’s pretty loaded. It’s a loaded concept, isn’t it?

Bruce Lesley  01:35

Yeah, absolutely. “Parents’ Rights” is the concept that parents will take over the decision making in schools and it really does marginalize the role and the expertise of teachers and educators. But it also really undermines and marginalizes children. And I think that what’s important here is that education is really about so many things. But let’s be clear, it’s really first and foremost about the kids, it really is a kid’s issue. Parents certainly have an important role to play. But it is to work in partnership with teachers and other educators to serve kids, rather than a self centered agenda focused upon parents, the vast majority of parents want what’s best for their kids,

Selley Looby  02:17

Right? I mean, you know, as a parent of three, I definitely want what’s best for my children. And, you know, I want to have a voice at the table and work with teachers, I have, you know, the utmost respect for teachers, they have, you know, one of the hardest jobs in the world, and the most important job, right. But it seems like the phrase and the concept of parental rights has kind of taken a two prong approach where, at its core, when you think of parents and teachers and the relationship, it should be a healthy, balanced relationship, and also should very much include kids. But it seems like there’s another growing agenda that’s kind of being masked, under the guise of parental rights that looks and at least feels for me a little different. What do you think?

Bruce Lesley  03:01

I think from the parents rights perspective, it is really narrow. And it is about the rights of some parents over other parents. There’s an agenda being pushed of, you know, banning books and imposing speech codes on teachers, white washing history, white washing science, and literature. It’s those kinds of things that most parents actually don’t want. Parents want their kids to be challenged, and they do want an education that really presents kids with the full truth.

Selley Looby  03:31

And the thing I love the most about our organization, First Focus on Children is the fact that we do work on the cross. Right? So we understand that when you’re looking at an issue like education, it’s not just education. It’s what do children eat that day? Are they showing up to school hungry? There’s a huge nutrition aspect of it. Also, you know, people don’t always think about the Child Tax Credit as it relates to education. But we know that that has a huge impact the little bit of support month over month, that will likely trickle down to a healthier meal, healthier options, not having to worry about hey, can I afford aftercare or an after school activity? So we understand the importance of the holistic vision around parental rights and parents rights, and we want them to be at the table. But again, it feels like there’s another agenda that’s kind of taking hold that doesn’t feel like it’s centering children at all.

Bruce Lesley  04:24

Yeah, absolutely. And most parents really what they want is something that helps them and their kids thrive. And so that agenda, as you said, is is an agenda that really supports full funding of schools that supports their nutritional needs or healthcare needs. A kid can’t learn if they’re hungry, or they’re sick, or they’re living in poverty. And so you also mentioned the Child Tax Credit. That’s off the charts supported by parents, but this parental rights movement doesn’t talk about those kinds of things. And that is really actually where what most parents want. They want an agenda that supports the needs of their kids but also their safety and so the other issue that’s really tragically forgotten in this conversation is the safety of kids in schools, that speaks to things like gun safety. We know that, tragically, the mortality rates of children in this country are rising. And that is due to both homicide and suicide rates. And that’s the things that parents want addressed.

Selley Looby  05:22

Right. Yeah, I know, the whole conversation around the book bans. And I mean, it’s a lot for parents to even understand and digest, you know, especially when you have such a hectic schedule. But it’s scary. And I think there’s a lot of parents that feel that anxiety, but they may not even know, you know, where to start or what to do. Because, you know, when you turn on the news, you see madness, even at PTA meetings?

Bruce Lesley  05:47

Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think something that kind of is forgotten here is this issue of even the sort of the health care needs the wraparound services, as you said, we really are focused on the whole child. And so you know, groups like Moms for Liberty, who are one of the parental rights groups, has advocated for the removal of health care services in schools. Well, that’s just crazy, like kids need supports. And then often that’s emotional supports. And so parents want school nurses, the parents want school counselors, and even athletic trainers, like if kids get hurt or get sick at school, parents want the assurance that schools will be there to help them. And that really does get into our guest, Arnie Fege. He’s a really major expert in this and he runs an organization that works with a lot of parent groups. And this is exactly the kind of agenda that they’re talking about.

Selley Looby  06:40

Yes, I am very excited to welcome Arnie Fege, who is the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a Washington DC based organization focused solely on federal national public education and child advocacy based on the intersection of research and practice. Fege brings over 40 years of public and nonprofit experience as a teacher, principal, Director of Desegregation, staff assistant to Senator Robert Kennedy, AP Veteran War Reporter, Governmental Relations Director for the National PTA, and Director of Advocacy for the Public Education Network.

Bruce Lesley  07:16

Welcome Arnie, thanks for joining us.

Selley Looby  07:18

Yes, hi, Arnie.

Arnold Fege  07:19

It’s great to be with both of you.

Selley Looby  07:21

So Arnie, this was essentially your whole career, right? You taught students, you were a principal, you served as Superintendent, and later you were a Desegregation Director for the state of Michigan. That’s a lot of different jobs, a lot of different hats. Did you see this parental rights issue in those years?

Arnold Fege  07:40

Thank you for reviewing all of those jobs. It wasn’t because I couldn’t keep a job. But well, when I was Director, policy was not a big issue. We were all working on on the Hill around desegregation. At that time, there was no US Department of Education. But the answer to your question is I faced this issue, when I started working for Robert Kennedy as a staff member in 1965. And if you remember, the 1960s, were really a decade of violence. We talk about violence today, but we killed our leaders, we actually had assassinated leaders for them, and many more leaders that were on Freedom Ride and doing civil rights. And I came to work with Robert Kennedy when he was Attorney General, as part of the OJJDP, which is the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency. It was a time where the Department of Justice concerned itself with our kids. And they wanted to make sure that our kids were not incarcerated. But they would incarcerate people that were in jail, whether the teamsters or whether they were part of a mob, and there was a lot of beginning of threats, as Robert Kennedy began to take seriously Brown v Board of Education, and at that time, desegregated colleges. So threats began coming in and we were being innocent as we were, we couldn’t believe the violent language. By the way, there was no social media at the time. So it was basically television, and who knows what would have happened to them and social media. But that began the opposition. I did a lot of civil rights in the South. After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, I spent two years as a war reporter in Vietnam, and came back and wanted to find some of the worst schools I could possibly find to teach in and I did.

Bruce Lesley  09:27

Arnie, can you describe to us what these quote worst schools were like?

Arnold Fege  09:31

They were segregated schools. They were schools that were isolated from the rest of the more affluent communities and actually, we never call them Jim Crow schools in the North, but they were segregated school said it didn’t make any difference whether you’re in New York or Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, there was a great deal of separate but unequal. And as a teacher and a principal, equity was always part of my career, I never identified it as such. But it was always providing greater opportunity for those kids that did not have it. And basically, equity is nothing more than some kids have more stuff than others. And as a principal I was then took, at a young age, the Director of Desegregation of the School District of Michigan. And I will tell you that the fear of that community was worse than what I saw in Vietnam, especially in the eyes of a kid. So especially in the eyes of the parents, and thank God for African American churches. This was a cross district bust, nine, primarily all white school districts, into this primarily all African American school district. And to make a long story short, it was a two year career, my wife was ready to leave because we had rocks thrown through our window. Our district was court ordered. And that was an experience for me because I had been doing all of this work in the South and all of a sudden were looking around and said, Holy mackerel, there’s major Jim Crow segregation in the North. And we faced as much resistance in the school that I was in, I had parents that threaten my principals, they would come in and say, my kids are not going to go to school with African American kids, they use an expletive, unfortunately, I had to find principals that were basically warriors. And I just wrote an article actually on teachers today and principals, Bruce, I wrote it thinking about your mom who is principal and teacher, but it is taking a lot of courage today to be a teacher, first responder, a principal primarily because the attacks that school districts are facing today. So there were groups that organized they were called cheerleaders for New Orleans, they had these obnoxious and surreptitious titles, they were deceptive titles, make you believe that they weren’t supportive public schools. And basically what they were in support of was more segregation. So we find different ways in different eras around segregating our kids. Today, 82% of our white kids go to primarily all white schools, but we do have an education system like 1954, where the education received is determined by your zip code. So the answer to your question is yes, now we have Moms for Liberty, and now we have pushback again, around grievances, primarily white, and those are wedge issues have they become I will say, in my estimation, more chilling, evermore concerning. And the issue at the end of the day is democracy with a small d democracy, democracy, democracy, and some people’s voice are heard, some people’s voices are out, I get a little emotional about this, you’ll understand because this is the core of what our organization is about. So the core of what Bruce said the organization’s about as well.

Bruce Lesley  12:48

So what he’s saying is that parental rights is an old idea, you’re saying we can trace it back to segregation and a backlash to the civil rights movement.

Selley Looby  12:57

First of all, I can’t believe Arnie has worn so many hats and has the breadth of experience, just everything that he’s witnessed over his lifetime. I think it’s fascinating the way that if we haven’t learned from history, it will repeat itself. And oftentimes, it looks a little different. But when you peel back the layers, you kind of get at the root cause. And I think this is fascinating, because when we kicked things off earlier, we were talking about this two prong concept around parental rights and parents rights and what it means. And I think Arnie did such a great job of kind of parsing out and almost showcasing that this new growing movement isn’t really parental rights at its core, when we’re really talking about the union and the relationship between parents and and teachers.

Bruce Lesley  13:46

Yeah, absolutely. It’s often about political power. In fact, it is cyclical. And when I started my career, so the Eagle Forum and Phyllis Schlafly and people like that were rising up, and and it really does bring to mind when Pat Buchanan ran for president. And he talked about parental rights in his presidential campaign in the 1990s.

Lily Klam  14:06

Your fight is our fight, and you have my solemn word, I will shut down the US Department of Education and parental rights will preveil in our public schools again.

Selley Looby  14:19

So we wanted to ask Arnie about that evolution, and we’ll be talking about that right after this break.

Leila Nimatallah  14:25

Making the world a better place for all children can seem like an impossibly huge task. Some of you may be thinking, I’m just one person, what could I possibly do to make a difference? I’m Leila Nimatallah, Vice President of Advocacy and Mobilization at First Focus on Children. And I’m inviting you to join us and become one of our volunteer advocates, whom we call our Ambassadors for Children. Ambassadors are our most active child advocates who raise critical issues with the US Congress and with the administration related to child policy and funding decisions, both for kids in the US and worldwide. But don’t take my word for it. We asked one of our ambassadors to share her experience.


My name is Amy Jo Hutchison. I’m a born and raised West Virginian who also happens to be an economic justice organizer. And I’m the founder of a grassroots movement here, Rattle the Windows. What drew me to the ambassador program at First Focus on Children was my lived experience of poverty. As a mother to living in one of the poorest states in the nation, advocating for children in poverty is very personal to me. A lot of people see numbers when they look at data and reports. But when I see new findings and reports on child poverty, I see my kids and I see their friends, our neighbors, and the people who I interact with every day. And I trust First Focus on Children. I have personally stepped into spaces that they’ve created for parents like me to be heard. What would I tell someone thinking about becoming an ambassador with First Focus on Children? Well, first of all, very few with any huge shifts in the way our country addresses economic justice issues have taken place without grassroots involvement. First Focus on Children has created an entry point for people like me to get involved with this ambassador program. It’s an easily accessible way for us to become engaged and informed and to turn our pain into power. I really hope you’ll join them.

Leila Nimatallah  16:29

So please join us won’t you? Check out, on how to become a First Focus on Children Ambassador and to link up with our fabulous community of committed child advocates.

Selley Looby  16:49

First Focus on Children is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families the priority and federal policy and budget decisions.

Bruce Lesley  16:58

First Focus on Children moves beyond individual issues to serve a more important role, educating lawmakers and the American public about the issues facing children.

Selley Looby  17:08

Check out our new newsletter the Alliance for Student Liberty, this newsletter puts a spotlight on public education. Stay up to date on the policies and events that are impacting our kids in schools the most, be sure to check out the tools filled with actionable information on how you can make a difference in your community. As you know, it takes a village.

Bruce Lesley  17:29

To learn more about our work and subscribe to the Alliance for Student Liberty newsletter, go to first and also stick around Lily Klam will be highlighting what’s going on with public education on ourupcoming segment Legislative State of Play. So Arnie, parents rights has its roots in the desegregation of public education. What aside from racism was also driving segregation academies and other aspects of this movement.

Arnold Fege  18:01

It was amazing when they put together a Constitutional Convention that said that all men and now women and everyone are really equal. And there’s flaws in this government, but it can be fixed. But many of the issues that we’re facing doesn’t go back to 54. It doesn’t go back to Jim Crow. It doesn’t go back to the Civil War, it goes back to the Founders and the people that they excluded in their school system, which were indigenous people, African Americans. And in many cases, this issue of exclusion is so so difficult to tamp down and get rid of. It is baked in the system and it has historical roots. And one of the things I understood very early is that every parent wants the best that they can possibly get for their kids. And the other lesson I learned as a school administrator but also as a Desegregation Director because the the parents who saved me were the parents who wanted their children integrated and improved, didn’t have that kind of opportunity. I quickly understood that democratically conceived public education as Horace Mann conceived it was that parents and the community were the public. Everyone needed to be involved in supporting their public schools. The public school was conceived as a as an institution that brought the common good around the common school around rich and poor, paid for by taxpayers where the money went into the schools. The anti-public education movement started with John Birch, the John Birch Society in the mid 50s, late 50s. And it began around the opposition to integrated schools and the Republicans, the John Birch Society affiliated itself with Republicans, Republican leaders were able to the sweep the extremists under the rug, they were there. But they were a small, marginalized group of the Republican Party. Interestingly enough, when I came to the Hill, the biggest supporters of public education are my moderate Republicans, my Lincoln Republicans, they were the biggest supporters. Republicans supported their public schools, because of local control and because of local decision making. In fact, they were really opposed to the Department of Education because it would be sort of the Board of Education. What happened then in the late 70s, and early 80s, is that we had the beginning of what was called the Outcomes Based Education War. Those were a small group of parents, who were opposed to outcomes based education for whatever reason. And then we had parents who were opposed to school linked health clinics, because they thought that that school should not be providing school linked health clinics, when all of the research showed that if you had health clinics, integrated with your high school, along with counselors and nurses, it benefited tremendously not only the kids and their families, but benefited the kids in terms of student achievement. There is no parental monolith number one. And in this current environment of parental rights, number one, most of the parents as polled just recently by Axios, but also Celinda Lake, who’s a pollster in Washington, DC, so that the majority of parents are very satisfied with their public schools. But at the same time, there is a group of parents, Moms for Liberty, and other by the way other extremist groups as identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center, who are anti government and anti school. And this anti government really began I will have to say, when politicians began running against government.

Bruce Lesley  22:00

We’re having it come back around, because now Moms for Liberty just tweeted that they do not believe that schools should be doing health care. So we shouldn’t have school health. We should not have school nurses, counselors, athletic trainers. So we’re having this debate again. So what is it that parents really want and when you’re talking to parents, what is their real agenda here?

Arnold Fege  22:26

The one thing that has not changed in terms of the issues is that usually these campaigns are not about what people are for. But they’re usually about what people are against right as small group. The second is that parents are not a monolith. So that in the current parental rights movement, not all parents are represented. African American parents are not represented Hispanic parents are not represented LGBTQ parents are not represented. There’s a whole lot of parents who are not represented, yet a small group of people insinuate that they’re representing all 54 million kids and their families. And by the way, we have 13,000 school districts in the United States so there’s 13,000 school boards What they would like to do is through intimidation, and through raucous school board meetings, and some of the school board meetings have turned violent, but by intimidation, they would like to impose their worldview, whatever their worldview is, on the rest of the parents. As you know, we are a national policy organization, as much as we try to focus on national policy. We are spending more time in the field talking to parents, who are absolutely alarmed about what happens what is happening in Florida, for instance, when it was a good state, we didn’t have to go through all of the the woke laws and Don’t Say Gay and the parental rights laws. But the third piece is these groups now are totally well funded and well connected. They have a lot of national money, that money does not come in from local communities they are driven at the at the top. And what really is interesting is for a group of people who want parental engagement, they have just passed a Parental Rights Bill at the national level that would impose national, now the bill is not going to pass the Senate, but they will do away with local control. And the same way with the states that are passing these laws and take away a lot of decision making local decision making that parents at one time had. And the last piece is that they have an increasing membership and media attention. I know that all of the networks are focused on Moms for Liberty, it is amazing that they’ve just been in business since the end of 2021 and they’ve gained so much media exposure. While there’s been a lot of attention paid to to the national level, they decided that they were going to go local and take over school boards and in many cases, the lowest voter turnout is school boards and in many cases, they sort of like a stealth bomber became school board members under the guise of Moms for Liberty and other extremist organizations. It’s chilling. So what’s happening is not all school districts are facing these issues and Moms for Liberty, but what Moms want to do is increase their membership. They are a C-4 organization. So we don’t know who contributes to the organization or who those contributors are. But we do know that there’s a close relationship to ALEC, which is the American Legislative Exchange Console, Heritage Foundation, a lot of conservative and right wing bent organizations. I think the big deal here is that there’s just a few parents at the table. And it is the discussions have turned from a civic discussion, which in the past, the community would come together, not just parents but the community as well and other stakeholders, including philanthropy, including business, including all the service agencies, including WIC including SNAP, including School Lunch and Child Nutrition and foster care and, and incarcerated kids. They’re opposed to them. These laws have tentacles, that’s the problem. They’re so vaguely written. And school boards are intimidated, actually, teachers are getting fired if they push back. At the end of the day, parents just want stability in their school district, not disablement, not chaos, they want stability. They want partnership with their teachers, they want to know how they can help their teachers at home to read, they want to be connected, which a lot of rural school districts are not, they want to be connected through the internet and through broadband with their schools. In fact, they want closer partnerships. And all of a sudden, they find out that these laws have been passed at the local level. The last piece I would say is, and the reason we focus so much on policy, practice is important. But notice how deptly, this movement has focused on policy, which the outcome is policy makes a difference. Anti CRT is a policy anti LBGTQ, is a policy. And because you have primarily the South, but also the interior West, you have super majorities in the state legislatures, including the governor of the same party, they can basically pass anything that they wish. So what I tell parents is be awake, be awake, this is an area where you have to know something about the school district about instruction about the science of reading, you have to inform yourself about what it is that’s going on in your schools, because there’s a chance that somebody may visit your schools and turn your school board upside down.

Selley Looby  27:32

Arnie that was beautifully laid out. I think that’s something that gets lost and as a parent, myself of three, there’s just so much information that’s constantly coming out. It can be overwhelming, you know, with respect to advocacy, in your experience, what you’ve been seeing so far across the country. Are you seeing kids being involved in the conversations? Is anyone asking kids? You know, is this content uncomfortable? Does it cause any anxiety? Does it cause fear? Are the needs of children really being centered around this?

Arnold Fege  28:01

I was waiting for that question that goes to my heart! And the answer is yes. And the kids are extremely distressed. And they feel they have no power. And a lot of the student engagement goes back to Marjorie Stoneham. And actually David Hogg called his school, the slaughterhouse rather than the schoolhouse, but he goes back to gun control. The ballot box can change this, but what the kids really understand is they need new leaders. And they think that they are the face of the new leadership. And in fact, they may well be because we’re getting 4 million new voters in the system almost every year. They’re 18 to 24. Malcolm Frost is the youngest person in Congress, you watch the two great African American leaders in Tennessee, the students basically are figuring that the adults are not going to change this, right. And they’re taking this all into their own hands. David Hogg has just put together his own PAC, student PAC to build leadership so that young people can run for office, and especially at the local level, at the school board level and as a state legislature level. On the other hand, there are a lot of kids that are, they’re caught in this vise. By the way, a lot of these policies that are passed are not required of private schools and are not required of religious schools. Yet in five states, we have universal vouchers. We could have another discussion, where the money instead of going to the school, and to the school district goes into the pocket of the parents, the parents can decide how they want to spend that money. All we know is that when that happens, and that happened with an early court case in Charlotte Mecklenburg, North Carolina, the court decided that choice especially a choice that as universal where everybody gets a tax break, that creates even further segregation. So yes, the answer to your question is yes. Now, not enough students are engaged. But we have a lot more student protests. And I think if I’m not mistaken, that the feel that I’m getting is that more and more students are going to be allowed to protest outside their school building. We haven’t talked about book banning Florida’s banned 1600 books. And now they just banned Shakespeare, The Bard 400 years book. And it’s being banned, because there is sort of there is sexual innuendos in Shakespeare. So teachers and students are caught in the middle of this the problem, they understand, not only they’re getting false history in Florida, if the African American Curriculum gets passed, but they’re also pushing back on AP Psychology, AP African American History, and there’s going to be a lot of students in Florida who in the past receive those kinds of courses, where school districts will be totally afraid and intimidated to provide those courses primarily because they’re fearing a lawsuit by Moms for Liberty, other parent organizations. You know, I want to put this back in balance. Parents must be involved. This is not anti parent involvement movement. It’s not a Republican issue. It’s not a Democratic issue, Democratic Party issues, it is an issue of democracy, and how do we get all the voices at the table?

Bruce Lesley  31:20

You and I’ve talked a lot in the past about, really, kids do stand at a crossroads. And there’s sort of two agendas here that we’re talking about. So on the one side, we’re talking about this whole agenda that’s sort of led by book banning and censorship and speech codes and curriculum whitewashing that includes the whitewashing of science and history, and literature. And then, on the other side, there’s an agenda of making investments in kids of really supporting them and their, their needs. We really do stand at a crossroads. What’s your best advice? And what makes you optimistic that we’re going to have success in this battle of the two agendas?

Arnold Fege  32:05

Well, I think I’m conflicted on that question. I think I am heartened by the number of young people coming into the system, I will have to say, and when I’m on the Hill, and I get tired of adults, I just got to find myself some kids. And being a former principal, the first graders and second graders give you a lot of hope. I will tell you, but my juniors and seniors in high school give me a lot of hope. For the first time I have a high school intern this summer from one of the DC high schools, that gave us hope. And we’re learning from young people. And there’s a lot of parent independent parent groups that are arising and waking up to what has happened to their school system, and they don’t like it. The other part of the strategy of Moms for Liberty is to create this distrust of an institution. And if you create this distrust, it is really difficult to bring it back again. And the glue that holds all of us together the public school, the public school that’s accountable, public school that’s equitable, the public school that’s engaged the public school that has experienced teachers, the public school that provides foster care, the public school that provides health care, the public school that provides feeding. Nobody’s providing those in many schools, because of the inequitable funding resources. So we’ve got a group of throwaway kids. On the other hand, teachers are facing some real challenges this year. And they’re my heroes. You know, there’s a lot of teacher shortages. If we continue down this path of putting teachers and families in the crosshairs of somebody’s political campaign, our schools that are going to be totally underfunded. And as you keep track of all of the federal programs, one of my favorite coalition’s, by the way is the Coalition for the Children’s Budget Coalition, which you all lead, I couldn’t do it without you. That Budget Book is dog eared, and I’ve printed it out and sent it out to everybody. But as you know, when we take a look at how the federal funds have decreased in terms of kids, and increased in terms of adults, kids don’t constitute much more than 7% of the federal budget, yet they’re looked to reduce the deficit, we’re going to reduce the deficit on the backs of poor and disadvantaged kids, LGBTQ and the needs that kids have. The other thing that’s risen in our organization, is the quality of education and opportunity that kids get in rural communities, and tribal communities, which are frequently the most underfunded. That’s what parents are concerned about, right? They’re concerned about feeding their kids, they’re concerned about where the next paycheck is gonna be they’re concerned about living wage, and they’re supportive of having an inclusive school. They want their kids to be in an inclusive school. There’s this myth going around and this is what this is this disinformation campaign. That’s how all parents are dissatisfied with their schools. They don’t want equity and they don’t want diversity and inclusion in their schools. That’s totally false. We know that that’s not true. And so trying to get rid of the diversions and begin to focus on the real issues of our kids, including college access, including career and technical education, including experienced teachers, including building a pipeline of teachers and counselors and nurses. That’s what parents are concerned about. And they want that.

Bruce Lesley  35:23

Absolutely.  Yeah, absolutely.

Arnold Fege  35:24

So we’ve got to bring those parents together, build those coalitions, and get those parents at the table and have an equal discussion. And I think this is an opportunity for schools to bring the community together, there’s 13,000 of these communities around the country it’s a real opportunity for Superintendents and school boards, to bring their communities together to really have a conversation, a conversation about the curriculum, a conversation about what the role of parents should be, what the role of school board should be, what the role of the state legislature should be. I think this is a teaching and learning opportunity. I think if we don’t take advantage of it, our public schools are in a lot of trouble, we will lose our public schools.  And the work that First Focus does is, is my model, to have an organization like First Focus that really does put children first and makes first really a practical and a relevant goal. I think it’s just absolutely fantastic. I would be a void in this town and this community and this country without First Focus.

Bruce Lesley  36:23

Arnie and thank you. I mean, thank you for all the work you do at Public Advocacy for Kids. But your whole career, thank you for being such a terrific champion for children. And thank you for really helping us today and being a friend of the pod. So we really appreciate you know, all your work and for being such a great friend to kids and to us. Thank you.

Arnold Fege  36:45

And totally, totally likewise.

Selley Looby  36:47

We’ll end on hopefully a lighter question. I actually have had the privilege of being in a room with Policy Link founder, Angela Glover Blackwell, and also Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone. And both of them, as you know, have been doing this work like you for so long. And the one thing that they both said was, this is hard work. It’s an uphill battle. And so you need to factor in rest and self care. And so I’ll end on what’s a song or some songs that really give you inspiration, some hope, as we think about the future?

Arnold Fege  37:21

Oh, We Shall Overcome without even thinking about it. What we’re really looking for are lifelong advocates, because these issues will never go away. And I think the last piece is policy makes a difference and where for in many cases, we get killed at the policy level. Because we’re so focused on other things besides policy. So policy may be mundane, it may be put some people to sleep. Boy, I’m going to tell you, it really does make a difference.

Bruce Lesley  37:51

We’ll keep the faith Arnie and thank you so much.

Arnold Fege  37:54

Oh, my pleasure. It’s great to be with both of you, I have to say it really, really made my afternoon it really enjoyed seeing you guys.

Bruce Lesley  38:06

So you probably heard a news report or podcast about this topic. But often nobody offers solutions to the issues that are important in education policy.

Selley Looby  38:16

So what exactly is happening on the Hill now around this issue?

Bruce Lesley  38:19

One of the biggest things that happened this summer was the House of Representatives took up legislation called the Parents’ Bill of Rights, the bill number was HR5. And this is very similar to bills we’ve seen across the country in states like Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, that have also been considering this concept of Parents’ Bill of Rights. And it does, as you said earlier, sound really innocuous. But the problem is, it really does divert and marginalize students in their own education, and really does take away from the expertise that educators have and really does start to work toward micromanaging it. There’s several things that we really disliked about the Parents’ Bill of Rights here at the federal level and why we opposed it. And one of one of those reasons was it really does create new significant bureaucracy and red tape and reporting requirements that again, when you start doing those kinds of things, you’re actually increasing costs. And you’re taking away time, from what really we should be doing is spending that time and energy and effort on educating students. It also does things like it promotes and facilitate book bans, and censorship, which is not something that we should be doing. Instead, we should be working toward getting kids access to books, literature, reading, and understanding. It also threatens access to health care in schools and including the privacy and confidentiality of students. It also promotes division and animosity between parents and educators when we actually need them to be working together. And one of the kind of negative things too is it seems to have this really nice thing about requiring the reporting of violence and incidences at schools to parents, but instead really what parents would want is that we’re actually working to prevent the violence towards students, educators, and teachers and even in school boards.

Selley Looby  40:12

So it sounds like this bill is actually harmful and not helpful in any regard. And there’s likely a lot of parents around the country, grandparents, teachers, all those that care about children that want to support. So what can we do to advocate for public education,

Bruce Lesley  40:29

You know, what parents really do want is a really well funded public schools for their kids. And they also want to make sure that when kids are learning, they’re being challenged, and that they’re being taught to think for themselves. And so there’s not a an agenda being pushed down their throats. In a lot of ways, what we really want to get at is giving kids the full history. So both the good and the bad. One of the things about bills is they really try to whitewash history, we need to know the whole truth, and provide that information to students. And so what kids really need is, is access to a quality and equitable public education, they need a right to safe schools and supportive learning environments. And they should also be given the ability to participate in their own education, and have information that that treats them with respect, and dignity. Those are some of the major things I think that we should really be thinking about. In addition to sort of what we talked about earlier, were things like wraparound services, so kids should be provided services and access to health care services in schools. This idea that we should ban that is it is harmful to their well being. And we also believe that kids should have full access to food and nutrition.

Selley Looby  41:45

You know, Bruce, I couldn’t agree more with you. And to talk a little bit more about the issue is Lily Klam from our team. Lily leads our education portfolio, she serves as Director of Education Policy. Lily, what are your thoughts? We were just talking about, you know, what can parents and those that really support kids, what can they do to advocate and also, you know, what, in your opinion is going on in the space around this issue?

Lily Klam  42:10

Yeah, thank you so much for having me. We recently launched a newsletter, where we talk exclusively about this issue called the Alliance for Student Liberty, which works to provide insight about the recent attacks on LGBTQ+ students, privatization of public school funding, and efforts to ban books. In the newsletter, we provide up to date information on these topics, as well as giving examples of how the public has fought back against them and won, we also provide tools with actionable information about how to make a difference in your community. Recently, we’ve covered topics such as Moms for Liberty, who have the support of prominent politicians like Ron DeSantis, Donald Trump and Nikki Haley. The group has been identified as an extremist far right organization, holds ties to the Proud Boys, and has quoted Hitler in their newsletter. We’ve also discussed the recent education changes in Florida, which altered the curriculum to emphasize how slavery was normal, inevitable, and created positive benefits for slaves. We’ve recently talked about the book bans, where over 80% of book banns are about LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color. By the way, the vast majority of the public disagrees with book bans, and just 11 people were responsible for 60% of the book bans in the 2021-22 school year. Students ability to read books overall has been under attack. For example, in Citrus County, Florida, around 4000 students completely lost their ability to use their school libraries, because the district implemented an opt-in policy for parents, where parents have to fill out a form to give permission to use the library. All of these recent horrific developments prove that our public education system as we know it is under attack. As hard as it is to fathom. We live in a period of time where multiple presidential candidates have discussed defunding the Department of Education. Our newsletter, the Alliance for Student Liberty is aimed at anyone looking to be involved in the crucial preservation of public education. We provide accessible information and tools to be active within your local communities.

Bruce Lesley  44:10

There has been some positive developments as people push back. So can you give us some examples of like, where parents or even students themselves have really had some victories?

Lily Klam  44:20

Yeah, we’ve seen really impressive victories on parents and students pushing back against this. We’ve seen books that were banned, available again, in libraries. We’ve seen parents, teachers and students all banding together to fight back against these issues. And it’s been really impressive. You know, I think that something going on right now is that these people like Moms for Liberty, although they’re in the minority, they’ve been really successful at making their voices heard and going to school board meetings to make these policy changes. And, you know, we are in desperate need of a strong counteraction. Which although we’ve been seeing that and they’ve been winning. It’s just not something we’ve seen enough of.

Bruce Lesley  45:04

Would you encourage then also that people really get involved in school board elections, like it’s one of the least voted on positions on the ballot. And it’s so critically important to kids.

Lily Klam  45:15

We definitely encourage people getting more involved in the school board elections. And, you know, that’s really where we’ve seen a lot of the success from groups for Moms for Liberty, people getting involved in the school board elections. So we really can’t undermine the importance of getting involved in these elections and attending these meetings and ensuring that the opinions of the majority are heard.

Selley Looby  45:40

Lily, thank you so much for sharing those insights. I mean, I couldn’t agree more. I think Moms for Liberty and groups like them are being very strategic in their outreach and their efforts and how they’re using their time and energy. And so everything you said, just you know, really outlines the Alliance for Student Liberty as a counter for parents and teachers and those that support kids to get more involved with and so thank you so much for your time.

Bruce Lesley  46:05

And I think it was great that you really underline that education is really fundamentally a children’s issue. This is Speaking of Kids, thanks for listening. I’m Bruce Lesley

Selley Looby  46:21

And I’m Messellech Looby special thanks to our guests Arnie Fege and Lily Klam.

Bruce Lesley  46:26

Speaking of Kids as a podcast by First Focus on Children.

Selley Looby  46:30

Elizabeth Windom is the supervising producer and Julia Windom is the Associate Producer

Bruce Lesley  46:35

Leila Nimatallah is the advocacy and mobilization producer and a senior producers Jay Woodward.

Selley Looby  46:41

Our theme music is Don’t Look Twice by Sam Farsh.

Bruce Lesley  46:44

For more information about this week’s episode, go to You can find our links in our show notes.

Selley Looby  46:51

If you have any thoughts, questions or interest in becoming a First Focus on Children Ambassador, email us at

Bruce Lesley  47:01

And please follow rate and review on Apple podcasts or Spotify or Google podcasts.

Selley Looby  47:07

Speaking of Kids is produced by Windhaven productions and Blue Jay Atlantic.