The so-called parental rights movement saw many of its candidates come up short in this year’s midterm elections. But if history is any guide, the cause will surely live on – in one form or another.
Generation after generation, activists have stood up for many things in the name of parental rights in education.
In the past century, the term has been used in controversies relating to homeschooling, sex education, and even the teaching of foreign languages in schools.
In politics today, many American parents have joined a conservative movement pushing for state legislation giving parents more oversight of schools. At issue are library books and course materials, use of school bathrooms by transgender students, and instruction on topics related to race, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won the election last year with his slogan “parents speak.” The GOP embraced this message, with conservative PACs spending millions of dollars in school board races wearing coats of desperation over remote learning and school mask mandates.
From the archives (Nov 2021): Glen Youngkin says his Virginia win shows that getting aggressive on schools is the Republican way to power
Also (Jan 2022): Republican Glenn Youngkin juggles executive actions after being sworn in as Virginia governor
The following is a look at how the movements for “parental rights” have evolved over the decades.
How has it unfolded in the past?
For almost as long as there have been public schools in America, there has been concern among some parents, and especially conservatives, about the effects on children.
In the 1950s, parents’ groups closely monitored the schools for any signs of communist infiltration. In the same decade, amid the onset of segregation, large numbers of families in the South began enrolling children in private schools rather than placing them in integrated public schools.
In 1972, the US Supreme Court cited parental rights when it allowed Amish families to exempt their children from high school in Wisconsin v. Yoder. The court acknowledged that this was an exceptional case because the Amish live separately and self-sufficiently, said Joshua Weishart, an attorney and professor at West Virginia University.
In litigation dating back to the 1920s, courts have affirmed the rights of parents to direct their children’s education. Weishart said, but he also stresses that there is a need to balance that with the state’s obligation to protect the welfare of children.
Weishart said that part of being a democracy is educating all American children.
“The state actually has a constitutional duty to democratize school children, and it has never been disputed that the state has that obligation,” he said.
How do the movements of the past relate to today?
A parallel is the question of what schools should teach related to gender and gender identity.
In the 1990s, a movement supported by evangelical conservatives sought to limit sex education in schools. Conservative leaders also encouraged like-minded candidates to run for school board, expressing concern about the ethics taught in schools and the growing acceptance of LGBTQ rights.
Some of those candidates won election, but communities pushed back against attempts at overt changes, said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, who has studied those school board battles. By the early 2000s, many conservative Christian families had begun abandoning public schools for homeschooling or other options, she said.
“Parental rights have always existed that you can kick your kid out of something,” said Michael Barth Berkman, political science professor at Penn State.
Now, he said, parents are going further — keeping their kids in public school but pushing for curriculum to be set.
What do the critics of ‘parents’ rights say?
Critics say the policies emerging from the parents’ rights movement threaten to make schools less welcoming places for students of color and others who have benefited from inclusiveness efforts.
Sharon Ward, a senior policy advisor at the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, said the proposals promote a false narrative that parents don’t have rights. A legislative proposal in Pennsylvania, she said, could allow for limiting objections by parents to what is taught.
Ward said, “Instead of empowering parents, the bill would impose the views of some parents on other parents.”
Across Virginia, student activists held school walkouts in September to protest Youngkin’s proposed changes to the state’s guidance on transgender student policies. The new rules will require a parent’s signature on the use of any name or pronoun other than the student’s official record.
Some opponents see an agenda to hollow out public education through vouchers and other measures.
“I would say that part of the game plan here is just to denigrate the schools and denigrate the public school system,” Berkman said. “It’s portraying them as horrible, evil places where all these bad, ugly things are going on and they have to be stopped.”
Has ‘Parental’ Rights’ gained traction in State Legislatures?
Over the past two years, laws focused on parental rights have emerged across the country with mixed success.
The Bill seeks to comprehensively codify that parents are responsible for the care, custody and direction of their child’s education. The discussions surrounding them have focused on parental access to the curriculum, restrictions on important race theory and transgender students’ bathroom use, among other issues.
Don’t forget to watch (December 2021): Florida’s DeSantis ‘Stop Woke Act’ – as in ‘Wars to Our Kids and Employees’ – to eliminate perceived influence of critical race theory from schools and workplaces
At the federal level, legislation introduced last year by a Republican congressman as the Parents’ Rights Protection Act would block COVID-19 vaccination requirements for children.
Several states have enacted such laws – such as Georgia, Arizona and Florida – but it has stalled or closed in others such as North Carolina and Missouri.
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