By Jamelle Bouie
You may have heard the phrase “parents’ rights.”
It sounds unobjectionable – of course parents should have rights – which is probably why it’s become the term of choice for the conservative effort to ban books, censor school curriculums and suppress politically undesirable forms of knowledge.
When House Republicans introduced a bill that would require public schools to notify parents that they are entitled to access course material and lists of books kept in school libraries, they cited “parents’ rights” as the reason.
“That’s what today is all about: It’s about every parent, mom and dad but most importantly about the students in America,” Speaker Kevin McCarthy said. Several Republican-controlled states have either proposed or passed similar measures.
The official name for Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibiting “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity,” is the Parental Rights in Education Act. And the state’s Stop WOKE Act – short for “Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees,” which outlaws any school instruction that classifies individuals as “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” was framed, similarly, as a victory for the rights of parents.
“By signing this legislation, which is the first in the nation to end corporate wokeness and critical race theory in our schools, we are prioritizing education, not indoctrination,” Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez said in a statement. “We will always fight to protect our children and parents from this Marxist-inspired curriculum.”
It should be said that this movement for “parents’ rights” in Florida has empowered certain parents to remove books, films, even whole classes that threaten to expose their children to material that might make them uncomfortable. In Pinellas County, for example, a single complaint about the Disney film “Ruby Bridges” – about the 6-year-old girl who integrated an all-white New Orleans school in 1960 – led to its removal from an elementary school.
In his 2021 campaign for the Virginia governor’s mansion, Glenn Youngkin made “parents’ matter” his slogan, and he has asserted “parents’ rights” in his effort to regulate the treatment of transgender children and end “divisive concepts” such as “critical race theory” in schools. His early moves included new history standards that removed discussions of racism and downplayed the role of slavery in causing the Civil War.
And at this moment, Texas Republicans are debating a bill – backed by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – that, according to The Texas Tribune, “would severely restrict classroom lessons, school activities and teacher guidance about sexual orientation and gender identity in all public and charter schools up to 12th grade.” Texas parents, the Tribune notes, already have the right to “remove their child temporarily from a class or activity that conflicts with their beliefs or review all instructional materials.” This bill would further empower parents to object to books, lessons and entire curriculums.
“Parents’ rights,” you will have noticed, never seems to involve parents who want schools to be more open and accommodating toward gender nonconforming students. It’s never invoked for parents who want their students to learn more about race, identity and the darker parts of American history. And we never hear about the rights of parents who want schools to offer a wide library of books and materials to their children.
“Parents’ rights,” like “states’ rights,” is quite particular. It’s not about all parents and all children and all the rights they might have.
The reality of the “parents’ rights” movement is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curriculums to the rest of the community. It is, in essence, an institutionalization of the heckler’s veto, in which a single parent – or any individual, really – can remove hundreds of books or shut down lessons on the basis of the political discomfort they feel. “Parents’ rights,” in other words, is when some parents have the right to dominate all the others.
And, of course, the point of this movement – the point of creating this state-sanctioned heckler’s veto – is to undermine public education through a thousand little cuts, each meant to weaken public support for teachers and public schools, and to open the floodgates to policies that siphon funds and resources from public institutions and pump them into private ones. The Texas bill I mentioned, for instance, would give taxpayer dollars to parents who chose to opt out of public schools for private schools or even home-schooling.
The culture war that conservatives are currently waging over education is, like the culture wars in other areas of American society, a cover for a more material and ideological agenda. The screaming over “wokeness” and “DEI” is just another Trojan horse for a relentless effort to dismantle a pillar of American democracy that, for all of its flaws, is still one of the country’s most powerful engines for economic and social mobility.
Ultimately, then, the “parents’ rights” movement is not about parents at all; it’s about whether this country will continue to strive for a more equitable and democratic system of education, or whether we’ll let a reactionary minority drag us as far from that goal as possible, in favor of something even more unequal and hierarchical than what we already have.