“Parents’ Rights” & the War on Public Schools

“Republicans believe that parents matter. It was true before the pandemic and has never been more important to say out loud: Parents Matter.” 

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, 3/1/2022

Selected to provide the GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union speech, Iowa’s Governor also asserted that regular people are  “tired of politicians who tell parents they should sit down, be silent, and let government control their kids’ education and future.” 

Claiming to stand for “Parents’ Rights” is the Republicans’ playbook for the 2022 elections, largely inspired by this simple sentence:  “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach kids.” 

That sentence basically lost an election for a Democrat in Virginia last fall…..results which provided a road map for ambitious Republicans everywhere.  Here’s one news report on what happened.  “Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe handed his Republican gubernatorial opponent Glenn Youngkin a campaign ad on a silver platter during a Tuesday debate by stating that he would not allow parents to tell schools what to teach their children.  McAuliffe… proudly acknowledged Tuesday that he vetoed legislation while governor that would have alerted parents when there was sexually explicit content in instructional materials. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

Youngkin hit that softball out of the park.  As Reuters reported, “In what could be a blueprint for next year’s congressional contests, Youngkin appealed to voters who disapproved of COVID-19 health rules and how public schools include race in their curricula while keeping Trump at arm’s length, despite receiving his endorsement.”

Inspired by Youngkin’s success, Republicans everywhere are painting public schools and the educators who work in them as the enemies of parents.   This isn’t new, of course, but it represents a dramatic escalation in an ongoing war on public schooling.

Take note, Democrats. The GOP will continue to present itself as “The Defender of Parents’ Rights” until Democrats come up with an effective counter.  You will find my suggestion at the end of this piece, and I’m sure you will have other ideas.

(Democrats may have another hurdle to get over: misleading reporting. Focus on what Reuters said about education, “…and how public schools include race in their curricula.”  The reporters, Jason Lange and Chris Canipe, seem to be accepting without reservation that school curricula in Virginia shouldn’t but do manage to ‘include race.’  Sadly, they are simply parroting Youngkin instead of giving their readers perspective.  In his campaign, Youngkin often claimed–without evidence–that “Critical Race Theory” was influencing the K-12 curriculum, even though he must have been aware that CRT is an academic subject covered in college, if at all. That line of attack became shorthand for ‘blaming whites for everything’ and making white students feel bad about being white.  Elect him, Youngkin promised, and he would to an immediate halt to what in fact wasn’t happening. It worked!)

Even though CRT is not part of any known K-12 curriculum, seven state legislatures have already banned it, and another 16 are considering bans.  “Indeed, to date, only Delaware has passed legislation to positively affirm the goals and intentions of teaching about racism, and the deleterious effect that that has had on generations of minorities of Black Americans in the United States.”

Republicans are also attacking public education in other ways, as NBC News reported recently.  As state legislatures kick into gear this month, Republican governors and lawmakers who have fought to limit discussions of race in public schools are lining up to support a new aim: curriculum transparency.

Lawmakers in at least 12 states have introduced legislation to require schools to post lists of all of their teaching materials online, including books, articles and videos. The governors of Arizona, Florida and Iowa, who have previously raised concerns about how teachers discuss racism’s impact on politics and society, called for curriculum transparency laws in speeches to their legislatures this month.” 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis was blunt: “Florida law should provide parents with the right to review the curriculum used in their children’s schools.”

Opportunistic politicians are also attempting to limit classroom discussion of other controversial topics.  In late February Florida’s House of Representatives passed a bill to ban “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in the state’s primary schools.  Governor DeSantis has indicated that he will sign the bill if the Senate passes it.  

Of course, the GOP maintains that it’s doing this for parents  “Speaking to legislators on the House floor, Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican who introduced the bill, said the measure is about “empowering parents” and improving the quality of life for the state’s children.”  Florida isn’t alone. According to the highly regarded publication Chalkbeat, at least 36 states have adopted or introduced laws or policies that restrict teaching about race and racism. 

As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote recently, “Defenders of this push for censorship say they are simply working to protect the nation’s children from prejudice, psychological distress and inappropriate material. ‘To say there were slaves is one thing, but to talk in detail about how slaves were treated, and with photos, is another,’ said Tina Descovich, a leader of (a Florida chapter of) Moms for Liberty, a conservative group that seeks to enshrine ‘parental rights’ into law.”

Ms. Descovich, who lost her seat on a local school board in 2020, is a parent, but many of the adults who have been disrupting local school board meetings not only do not have children enrolled in those schools; they are classic outside agitators, perhaps even from neighboring states. 

Simply reviewing curricula and banning discussion aren’t enough for some. Legislators in Florida, Iowa, and Mississippi want cameras installed in classrooms so parents can watch what’s going on. “The Iowa bill, H.F. 2177, would require that cameras be placed in every public school classroom in the state, except for physical education and special education classes.  The cameras would feed to livestreams that could be viewed on the internet by parents, guardians and others.”  Educators who fail to keep the cameras operational would lose 5% of their salary, per infraction.  The bill died in Committee, but its supporters haven’t given up.

The pandemic has created opportunities for opponents of public education.   Twenty-two states created or enlarged school voucher programs in 2021, and more are in the offing.  “School voucher proponents in statehouses across the country have spent much of the past year working to pass legislation that transfers critical public school funding to the private sector. Framing these debates around education “reform” and the inauthentic culture wars surrounding public schools, voucher proponents have been steadily working to undermine public education on the state level.”  That’s from the publication of the National Education Association, which explains the loaded language. 

But the NEA numbers are correct, as others have reported​​”Nearly half of all state legislatures last year increased funding for school choice programs in their state budgets or passed laws to expand or create new Education Savings Accounts or scholarship programs. They also notably expanded eligibility requirements to include home-schooling, charter schools and private schools.  Four states created entirely new programs; three created new and expanded programs, and Ohio created the most improved programs of them all, according to the analysis. The majority, 14, either expanded or improved their existing school choice programs.”

While this isn’t the time or place to debate vouchers, let’s stipulate that money dedicated to vouchers would otherwise have gone to public schools. 

COVID and the ensuing closure of most public schools frustrated many parents, some of whom felt that teachers cared more about their own health than their students’ learning.  Teacher unions, a favorite whipping boy of the right, may have hurt their own cause by defending members who did not want to risk contracting COVID–but defending their members is what unions are supposed to do.  

But what’s happening now has very little to do with education and far more to do with politics.  Republicans feel that being ‘pro-parent’ is a winning position, even though barely 20% of households have school age children.  I don’t think most Republican politicians really care whether parents dig deeply into curriculum. What they hope is that the other 80%–those without children–will be outraged at the idea of meddling teachers indoctrinating America’s children. Their goal is for the other 80% to go to the polls and vote Republican.

However, Democrats should be heartened by a recent CBS poll indicating that a large majority of adults oppose these restrictions.   “Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea of banning books about history or race. One reason for that: a big majority also say teaching about the history of race in America makes students understand what others went through.  Large majorities — more than eight in 10 — don’t think books should be banned from schools for discussing race and criticizing U.S. history, for depicting slavery in the past or more broadly for political ideas they disagree with.  We see wide agreement across party lines, and between White and Black Americans on this. Parents feel the same as the wider public.”

The thoughtful blogger Jan Ressenger has a comprehensive and very readable post on the GOP efforts and the pushback here. Why Public School Supporters Need to Keep On Pushing Back Against Laws Banning Discussion of “Divisive” Subjects at School

Keep that in mind as we go back to the question that sank Democrat Terry McCauliffe in Virginia , about parental involvement in what’s taught in schools.  Just how involved should they be?  

I think every Democrat running for any office should answer the question along these lines:

“All citizens–not just parents– should care deeply about the education of all of our children. Let’s ask ourselves what we want kids to grow up to be able to do, and what kind of adults we want them to become.  Do we want them to write well, speak clearly, understand numbers, be able to differentiate between truth and fiction, speak more than one language, be healthy, and work well with others?  Of course we do.  And that means they must do those things in school, because, as the great philosopher Aristotle said long ago, “We are what we repeatedly do.  Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”  

And so because we want our children to be able to write clearly, then they must write and rewrite, repeatedly. Because we want them to be able to speak clearly and persuasively, they must do those things in school, repeatedly.  And because we want them to be successful in working with others, then in school they must work together on academic projects, play on teams, act in plays, and help produce the school newspaper.   Because we want them to become healthy adults, they must have regular recess, free play, and physical education.  And so on….

Let me give you three reasons adults without school-age children should care about what happens in schools:  First, those kids are going to grow up and be involved in your life, whether you want them to be or not. Some may be tuning up the jet engines on the planes you or your grandchildren fly on. Others may be called on to repair a gas line leak in your neighbor’s home, to look over your state tax returns, or to take care of your sick pet. And some of those kids will grow up to be nurses and hospital technicians, checking on your IV drip when and if you are hospitalized.

Second, having a well-educated workforce means that more companies will decide to locate here in our great state, instead of locating in….

Third, poorly educated adults are a threat to public safety and a drain on the state’s finances.  Investing now in the education of all our state’s children will save you money and keep you safer. Thank you.”

In the name of ‘personal freedom’ and ‘parents’ rights,’ many Republican politicians are running a giant scam. They are trying to tear down public education so they can divert public funds to private companies and individuals and, at the same time, destroy the teacher unions.  Finally, they hope to undermine the vital concept of a common good.  

To accomplish these goals, they plan on keeping voters inflamed and ignorant.  

We cannot let that happen…..

7 thoughts on ““Parents’ Rights” & the War on Public Schools

  1. John, I agree the Virginia candidate for governor handed Republicans a gift – and I disagree with what he said. Much more nuance on family involvement is needed.

    Below is a column I wrote that is appearing in a number of suburban and rural Mn newspapers. I think we need to differentiate between family involvement that is pushing to expand, and family involvement that is trying to restrict what students can/are learning.

    Reactions always welcome.

    Sincerely

    Joe Nathan, parent of 3 graduates of urban public schools and grandfather of 5 current urban public school students, director, Center for School Change

    Shared decision-making can help students

    More involvement by families, educators and students is needed in decision-making. That’s a clear and wise message from a large statewide Minnesota survey and a national study. This can help more students reach their potential, although it takes time and can be abused. Let’s start with two stories.

    One of our children attended a public elementary school where she and other sixth-graders showed they were ready for algebra. Their teachers responded.

    Then she went to a public junior high that started teaching her math she’d had two years earlier. When some parents approached the educators to explain, initially, educators resisted. Families diplomatically suggested it would have been helpful for elementary and junior high educators to meet to share information about the students’ math preparation.

    We focused on solutions, rather than blame. Within two months, revisions were made and the math curriculum was revised to reflect what students were ready for.

    Years later, as a parent, I attended a meeting at a public school where decisions were being made about how to spend about $150,000. The school received this money because about 30% of the students were Hmong American and didn’t speak English as a first language and about 50 % of the students were from low-income families.

    About 20 Hmong-American parents, students and grandparents came to the meeting. Through a translator, they figured that their students had generated at least 30% of the money, or about $45,000.

    They requested two things, totaling $30,000. First, they asked for a person to be hired as an office assistant, for about $25,000, who was a fluent speaker of Hmong and English. Educators acknowledged that no adult in the school spoke Hmong. Families needed someone they could communicate with. They also asked for $5,000 to create after-school classes so that the students and families could learn English more rapidly.

    Though several of us supported these recommendations, the educators turned them down. The principal thanked the families for coming to the meeting.

    This was not the first time recommendations from Hmong-American families were rejected. Many of these families and friendly educators then decided to set up a charter public school. Both of their suggestions, and many more, were part of the school’s design. (The school is open to all, and enrolls a variety of students, not just Hmong-Americans). Thanks to Minnesota’s public school choice programs, dissatisfied and frustrated families have options.

    These stories help illustrate why more involvement of families, as well as educators and students on what’s being taught and how money is spent, can be valuable. A recently released survey focusing on lessons from the pandemic, from the University of Minnesota of more than 18,000 Minnesotan educators, families and students found, among other things, that people “wanted more family and community, teacher/educator and student involvement in decision making.” The survey is here.

    A recent national survey found much stronger support for families and educators to be involved in curriculum decisions, rather than governors and state legislators. Learn more here.

    Khulia Pringle, Minnesota manager of organizing and outreach for the National Parents Union, agrees. She told me, “It’s important for student and parents to be able to voice their concerns or be critical of materials being taught.”

    Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, believes, “authentic, two-way communication between students, educators and parents is always appropriate and encouraged.”

    This is allowed, in part, under a Minnesota law permitting families to ask for alternative instruction if they object to instructional materials being used. The law is found here.

    Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Board Association, told me, “We believe the current process works well for our districts and families.”

    Another law requires student, educator and family involvement in developing post-high school plans. The statute can be viewed here.

    More publicity and attention to how these laws are implemented could be useful. Future columns will discuss them. Reader reactions welcome.

    More involvement in decision-making won’t solve all our problems. It can be abused. For example, families can overwhelm schools with requests for information. But on balance, students benefit when families, educators and youngsters share their insights, listen to and learn from each other.

    Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org or on Twitter, @joenathan9249

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  2. Republicans do not in the slightest care about “parents’ rights.” They care only about stoking intense battles in the culture war. Extreme right politicians (the only kind now) thrive on division and aggrieved-ness and are actively and openly trying to destroy all institutions supporting the common good, which they see as “collectivism” — a term, like “socialism,” that they do not understand.

    Teachers will soon be leaving public schools in droves, which push public schools closer to oblivion — exactly what the RepubliQanons want.

    Democrats and other good guys have not figured this out or how to respond, after at least a decade of this strategy. They had better soon or there soon will not be a United States of America to fight over.

    Thanks for another great blog, John.

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    • Hugh, over the last 50 years I’ve been urban public school educator, PTA president, father of 3 St Paul Public School graduate and grandfather of 5 current St Paul Public School graduates as well as a researcher and since 1989, columnist for a variety of Mn newspapers. I respectfully disagree with the blanket statement “Republicans do not in the slightest care about ‘parents rights.”
      Some do. Some do see this as a wedge issue.
      Not sure if you read the column I posted above. OVer 50 years, I’ve seen a variety of responses from educators to parents trying to have input (which I regard as appropriate).
      I’m especially supportive of families that want to expand opportunities (as outlined above). I don’t support efforts to restrict opportunities (as some families, and some educators want to do). Perhaps you and or other will want to comment.

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  3. Due to public education , the electorate , if you believe mass media, has elected a president
    Who is obviously mentally impaired, and a Vice President who is an embarrassment, this of course is merely my opinion.
    When I was in college, I wanted to give a see how , using statistical analysis, which showed unionized school districts had a downward trend in SAT and College Board scores, while non unionized school districts were maintaining those scores. The Professor did not allow me to give that speech, and this was in 1965.
    Take this climate change issue. Teaching that carbon dioxide emission are causing Global warming. That just simply is not true. Volcanoes, earthquakes, the changing of the earth orbit, the inverse of solar fusion on the sun’s surface, these affect climate change, not any punny emissions the mankind can create. The hubris of man thing they can cause climate change, is only exceeded by the idea that mankind can correct climate change. More pollution was dumbed into the atmosphere in the ninety seconds after Mt. St. Helenas erupted, than the total of all mankind’s atmospheric emissions for the first fire ever stated by a primitive, until the current day. How about teaching kids, at one time the earth was so warm. There were forests growin in Antarctica, and so cold the Polar ice caps extended as far so as the Kankakee river in Illinois. There was so much water frozen in the ice caps, ocean levels were eighty feet power than the were now and when the earth was at its warmest the Gulf of Mexico shores was as far north as Memphis Tennessee. Yes Global warming is a lame excuse, and is being used in public education as a political tool.
    The liberal left has spent the last one hundred an forty years getting control of the public education system in The USA. They only teach what they want students to know.
    What makes me so sad, I sent my life being a tool and die maker. I did not pay any attention to all the meadow muffins that public education was pouring into young minds. As my last argument I will give as a case in point. A man, whose resume included, 14 years as a liaison between the Administration and the Defense Dept, 8 years as a Congressional Representative, aspiring to the Chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, and have our last, and only balanced budget, in more years than I know, and then followed all the above with 8 successful years as Governor of the state of Ohio, Clearly the most qualified individual to be president, got from this public educated electorate two percent of the Republican Primary vote. If this does knot make my point that public education is a total failure, I guess nothing can.

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  4. One reason the right wing has had success with undermining America’s most important common good- public K-12 is that the attack is an alliance of conservative Catholics, evangelicals and libertarians like Koch and Bill Gates. Media, sometimes, unintentionally, use Pat Buchanan’s framing, “culture war.” What we are witnessing is not a culture war, it is theocracy aided by wealthy authoritarians.
    Catholics publicly take credit for Indiana’s school choice legislation. Media report that the VP of EdChoice in Kentucky is also the associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. Btw- in Kentucky, there are Catholic schools that have altered the U.S. pledge of allegiance to include church doctrine.
    The research in, “The new official contents of sex education in Mexico: laicism in the crosshairs,” explains the situation.
    Ryan Girdusky who founded the 1776 PAC to fund school board members opposed to CRT, wrote an interview (2014) posted at Pat Buchanan’s site. It’s a must read.
    The 6 conservative Catholic jurists on SCOTUS decided in 2020 to force taxpayers to fund religious schools and they exempted religious schools from civil rights employment law.
    Taxpayers have made Catholic organizations the U.S.’ 3rd largest employer. That should be a grave concern to advocates of separation of church and state. Jefferson said, in every country, in every age, the priest aligns with the despot.
    Public education defenders who buy-in to omitting identification of propaganda as Catholic-driven, enable further attacks. 63% of White Catholics who attend church regularly voted for Trump in 2020. A recent article in Mother Jones explains that evangelicals are significantly less powerful than Catholics in achieving right wing political goals.

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