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  • Alex Horn

The Weaponization of "Parents' Rights" in the Right's War Against Public Education

After losing the House in 2018, and the presidency and Senate in 2020, the Republican Party sought a change in strategy. For the first time in decades, wealthy suburbanites flipped to the Democrats, and the same suburbs won the presidency for Joe Biden in 2020. Therefore the GOP turned their attention to an issue that suburban voters for which care deeply—education. Conservatives poured millions into school board races and education advocacy organizations, with much of their messaging focused on “parents’ rights”. Through a series of cherry-picked public information requests, conservative activists manufactured a crisis of critical race theory (a legal lens of analyzing institutional outcomes) being taught in schools. Conservative groups like The Heritage Foundation founded their manufactured outrage on any teaching of CRT as “contrary to parental rights.” In 2022, 241 “anti-CRT” bills were adopted in state and local legislatures to ban the teaching of racism in American history.

More recently, conservative outrage over curriculum focused on the perceived threat of “gender ideology” in schools, which is really just the recognition of the existence of queer and trans people. Most notably, Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act (a.k.a. the “Don’t Say Gay” bill) placed a broad prohibition of nearly all discussion of sexual orientation or gender in schools. This was not alone, with more than a dozen states proposing similar bills less than a month after its passage. On the federal level, a “Parents Bill of Rights Act” passed the Republican-controlled House to—among other provisions—force schools to out students as trans to their parents. All these provisions to restrict what can be taught in public schools were passed under the guise of parents’ rights, and while this talking point has only recently returned, its use in promoting illiberal education policy is vast.

The fight over what would be taught in schools is as old as public schools themselves. The first use of parents’ rights was in opposition to public schools themselves and making education compulsory. In the early 20th century, Progressive reformers took up the mantle of ensuring an well-informed citizenry, so by 1916 nearly every state had mandated school attendance. However, industries that relied on children for labor fought against compulsory education, and they based their argument in the legal concept of parental rights. In a congressional proposal to restrict child labor, the Ohio Farm Bureau complained that parents “did not know that the Congress was considering taking their parental authority.” During this time, parents’ rights would also be used to oppose the teaching of evolution and vaccine requirements for attending school.

By the mid-century, public schools had become an accepted fact of American culture, but there was a new topic in social discourse—communism. The Red Scare was well underway, and conservatives fixated on rooting out alleged communists from American life, including in public schools. Of course, as with the critical race theory or gender ideology of today, communism didn’t exist in schools. However, conservatives still used the idea of parental rights to advocate the removal of anyone they alleged to be communist—teachers, counselors, administrators—anyone who they had any slight disagreement with, all to decrease the size of the public school system.

Claiming communists were infiltrating the schools had a second purpose—to oppose desegregation. Voices calling proponents of desegregation communists only got louder after Brown v. Board, so instead of using parents rights’ to keep public schools segregated, they claimed their right to remove their children from public schools altogether. White parents refused to send their children to school with Black children, and right-wing libertarians saw this as an opportunity to once again try to divest from public schools. Prominent conservative economist Milton Friedman wrote he was equally opposed to “forced segregation” and “forced nonsegregation,” and he found the solution to this contradiction in private schools. He wrote that, under a system of private schools, parents have the right to choose between “exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.” Out of this was born a new policy for education provision—school choice. In Virginia, white conservatives enacted school vouchers to allow white parents to use funds that would otherwise go to public schools to send their children to private, segregated schools. Over the following decades, this policy would be replicated throughout the nation, creating a system of underfunded public schools for students of color, and well-funded private schools for white students.

Over the latter half of the twentieth century, public school enrollment—and thus its funding—was slipping relative to private schools, so conservatives continued their fight against public education, again using the talking points of parents’ rights and school choice. Nationally, Republicans hadn’t controlled the House for 40 years, and so in 1994, they proposed a “Contract With America” in hopes of regaining the House. This Contract was filled with parental rights proposals, with everything from a bill to allow parents to sue schools in federal courts to a constitutional amendment to guarantee “The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children.” Some even proposed to abolish the federal Department of Education, so “parental rights will prevail in our public schools again.” None of these would be implemented, but in 2002 George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act required schools to administer annual tests to determine parental approval. If a school didn’t meet this requirement or was in any other way declared as “underperforming,” the parents could receive a voucher and send their child to a private school.

Today, conservatives’ campaign to delegitimize public schools is just as strong as ever. Since the ‘70s, trust in public education has been on the decline, with the percent of Americans reporting confidence in public schools dropping from 62% in 1975 to 28% today. Parents’ rights campaigns—like those claiming critical race theory and gender ideology have invaded our public schools—give room for proposals to defund public education. On the state level, proposals to establish or expand vouchers are commonplace. On the federal level, Republicans are still adamant about defunding education. Discourse around “parent’s rights” has nothing to do with giving parents more of a say over their children’s education—after all, Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of restricting discussion of race and sexuality in schools. Rather, proponents of parents’ rights are just a part of the right-wing’s long history of eroding public education.


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