The “parents’ rights” movement saw many of its candidates fall short in this year’s midterm elections. But if history is any guide, the cause will surely live on – in one form or another.
For generations, activists have championed a number of things in the name of parental rights in education.
Over the past century, the term has been used in disputes related to homeschooling, sex education, and even the teaching of foreign languages in schools.
In politics today, many US parents have joined a conservative movement pushing for state legislation that gives parents more oversight of schools. It covers library books and course materials, the use of school toilets by transgender students, and teaching about issues related to race, sexual orientation, and gender identity.
Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won last year’s election with his slogan “Parents matter.” The GOP embraced the message, with conservative PACs funneling millions of dollars to school board races fueled by frustration over distance learning and school mask mandates.
Here’s a look at how “parental rights” movements have evolved over the decades.
HOW DID THIS CREATE IN THE PAST?
For as long as US public schools have existed, there have been concerns about influencing children among some parents, particularly conservatives.
In the 1950s, parent groups closely monitored schools for signs of communist infiltration. In the same decade, amidst the beginnings of desegregation, large numbers of families in the South began enrolling their children in private schools rather than in integrated public schools.
In 1972, the US Supreme Court in Wisconsin v. Yoder invoked parental rights when it allowed Amish families to exempt their children from high school. The court recognized that this was an exceptional case because the Amish are separate and self-sufficient, said Joshua Weishart, an attorney and professor at West Virginia University.
In court cases dating back to the 1920s, courts have affirmed the right of parents to direct their children’s education. But they have also emphasized the need to strike a balance with the state’s obligation to protect children’s best interests, Weishart said.
Part of a democracy is educating all American children, Weishart said.
“The state really has a constitutional duty to democratize school children and it has never been denied that the state has that duty,” he said.
WHAT DO EARLIER MOVEMENTS HAVE TO DO WITH TODAY’S DEBATES?
One commonality was questions about what schools should teach in relation to gender and gender identity.
In the 1990s, a movement supported by evangelical conservatives attempted to restrict sex education in schools. Conservative leaders also encouraged like-minded candidates to run for school board, raising concerns about the ethics taught in schools and the growing acceptance of LGBTQ rights.
Some of those candidates won the election, but communities have resisted attempts at extreme change, said Melissa Deckman, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, which has studied these school board struggles. In the early 2000s, many conservative Christian families began leaving public schools for homeschooling or other options, she said.
“Parental rights have always been about being able to pull your kid out of something,” said Michael Barth Berkman, a professor of political science at Penn State University.
Now, he said, parents are going further — keeping their kids in public school but pushing to fix the curriculum.
WHAT DO OPPONENTS SAY?
Critics say the policies that emerged from the parental rights movement threaten to make schools less welcoming places for students of color and others who have benefited from inclusion efforts.
The proposals encourage a false narrative that parents have no rights, said Sharon Ward, a senior policy adviser at Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center. A proposed law in Pennsylvania, she said, could allow parental objections to impose limits on classes.
“Rather than empowering parents, the bill will impose the views of some parents on other parents,” Ward said.
Across Virginia, student activists held school strikes in September to protest Youngkin’s proposed changes to state policies on transgender student policies. New rules there would give parental consent to the use of names or pronouns not on a student’s official records.
Some opponents see an agenda to undermine public education through vouchers and other measures.
“I would say that part of the game plan here is to discredit schools and the public school system,” Berkman said. “It paints them as horrible, nasty places where all these really bad, ugly things are going on and need to be stopped.”
HAS THIS BEEN REQUIRED IN STATE LEGISLATION?
In the past two years, legislation focusing on parental rights has emerged across the country with mixed success.
The bills are largely aimed at codifying that parents are responsible for the care, custody and directing of the upbringing of their child. Discussions around them focused on parental access to the curriculum, bans on critical race theory, and bathroom use by transgender students, among other things.
At the federal level, legislation introduced last year as the Parental Rights Protection Act by a Republican congressman would have eliminated mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for children.
Several states like Georgia, Arizona and Florida passed the legislation — but it has stalled or been struck down in other states like North Carolina and Missouri.
Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.