The Hidden Agenda of the “Parental Rights” in Education Movement

Legislators across the United States are introducing bills to expand parents’ rights in schools, but is it really about parental empowerment, or is it an attempt to control our classrooms and kids?

“PARENTS’ RIGHTS have been increasingly under assault around the nation!” declared Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in a statement on March 28, 2022, when he signed Florida House Bill 1557 into law. DeSantis has made parental rights a central theme of his administration, pushing legislation to empower parents and crack down on supposed out-of-control school boards and teachers’ unions. In practice, the “Parental Rights in Education” bill is an attempt to control what can be taught in Florida classrooms and to inject politics and ideology into the educational process.

But the intentionally vague wording of the bill makes it impossible for teachers and librarians to judge what materials are acceptable and which are prohibited. Moreover, by allowing parents to sue educators for noncompliance, this legislation threatens educators with professional and financial ruin. Most are opting to protect themselves by simply removing books from their classrooms and libraries and avoiding any topics that might offend some parents.

Legislators across the United States are introducing similar bills to expand parents’ rights in schools, with at least eighty-four bills introduced in twenty six states. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin has promised to use the full weight of his office to protect parents’ rights, and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley has introduced a Parents’ Bill of Rights at the federal level tweeting, “It’s time to turn back Joe Biden’s effort to shut parents out of their kids’ education.”

Citizen groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education are gaining momentum in their efforts to defend parental rights and reclaim schools. Moms for Liberty boasts over 115,000 members, calling themselves “joyful warriors.”

“People don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, the power that the bureaucrats have…and school boards are just rolling over. It’s time that parents have just as much power,” Moms for Liberty founder Tina Descovich told the Rush Limbaugh show. “We are just moms claiming our parental rights and working to save our country, and there is evil working against us every day.”

This narrative is animating and energizing conservatives across the country. Certain parents and politicians are joining forces to rise up against what they regard as a nationwide conspiracy of teachers and administrators to cut parents out of their children’s education.

There is no such conspiracy.

Parents have always been allowed to participate in their children’s education and make choices about what they learn. My own parents frequently requested alternative assignments and activities when the curriculum conflicted with their religious beliefs. My teachers always accommodated their requests, and I often went to the school library during activities my parents deemed inappropriate. The librarian had a note on my account about which books I wasn’t allowed to check out, and never once ignored these instructions, despite my pleading. If my parents believed a book shouldn’t be in the library, they could ask that it be reviewed and potentially removed. There was even a form for that very purpose.

I now have children of my own in public schools. These same options remain in place and are available to all parents in all schools and most parents are satisfied with these provisions. A recent NPR/IPSOS poll reports that 76 percent of parents believe their child’s school is doing a good job keeping them informed about the curriculum, including controversial topics. Additionally, Gallup found that 73 percent of parents are “satisfied with the quality of education their oldest child is receiving.”

The same Gallup poll however finds that 54 percent of parents are somewhat or completely dissatisfied with K-12 education in the United States. It seems that while parents think their kids’ school is doing fine, the public education system in general isn’t as it should be. The more vocal of them loudly claim that schools are falling into depravity, and they won’t stand for it.

Public education, once revered as the “greatest of all services” by Thomas Jefferson, is now viewed as the greatest of all threats. The campaign to “take back our schools” has spread across the country, with protests at school board meetings and an unprecedented surge in book banning. Activists are accusing teachers of being pedophiles and librarians of being “groomers.”

Parental rights advocates have cast a wide net to capture all perceived evils plaguing public schools, including Critical Race Theory and sexualized seahorses. Books featuring LGBTQ+ characters, unflattering histories, or current social issues are pulled from libraries and hidden from view in classrooms.

Initially, angry parents fought school boards over COVID-19-related school closures, mask mandates, and vaccinations. The sudden shift to online learning left teachers and parents struggling to adapt while students were forced to cope with the added stress of the pandemic on top of their academic workload.

Stanford University researchers found that remote learning led to “little or no progress” for students. Another study concluded that students lost 35 percent of a normal school years’ worth of learning.

Parents’ legitimate concerns over COVID-19 era school closures and safety measures soon turned into ideological rallying cries and identity signaling as conservative interests saw an opportunity to expand their base.

“The campaign to ‘take back our schools’ has spread across the country, with protests at school board meetings and an unprecedented surge in book banning.”

“Now is the time to capture these parents for the long-term,” said Moms for Liberty’s Descovich. “If you miss this opportunity, when they are really engaged [during the pandemic], it’s going to be hard to engage them in the future.”

Republican strategist and provocateur Steve Bannon urged the conservative movement to focus on school boards, arguing that “the path to save the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.”

Recasting the pandemic as an existential threat to families activated a previously unengaged segment of the electorate. Conservative politicians, such as Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, successfully weaponized education by making LGBTQ+ issues and Critical Race Theory central themes of their campaigns. In an upset victory, Youngkin became the first Republican to win statewide office in Virginia in over a decade. In the view of Jatia Wrighten, an assistant political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Youngkin successfully weaponized education. “He activated White women to vote in a very specific way that they feel like is protecting their children.”

The Republican National Committee’s polling memo advises candidates to focus on “parental rights” and “quality education” to attract independent voters, while “CRT and masks” excite the GOP base. Christian Ziegler, vice chairman of the Florida Republican Party, credits “parental rights” issues with bringing new voters to the GOP. “I have been trying for a dozen years to get 20- and 30-year-old females involved with the Republican Party, and it was a heavy lift to get that demographic,” said Ziegler. “But now Moms for Liberty has done it for me.”

Moms for Liberty is at the center of the Parent’s Rights movement and is a driving force behind the wave of book challenges and bans. The group’s efforts initially focused on Brevard County, Florida, where they produced lists of books they found objectionable and demanded to be removed from school libraries and curricula. Initially, books were challenged for sexual content. These criteria quickly expanded to include “racially divisive” rhetoric, LGBTQ+ themes, references to abortion, and criticism of Christianity. The group’s efforts have expanded far beyond Florida, resulting in a record number of book bans nationwide.

As Moms for Liberty grew, it expanded its charter to pursue other conservative causes, like advocacy for “school choice.” The organization’s website now features a video seminar entitled “School Choice: Education Freedom,” which promises to help parents “escape the monopoly” of public education.

School choice advocates and activists rarely use the term “public schools,” preferring the more pejorative “government schools.” Former President Donald Trump boosted this phrase in public discourse in his 2020 State of the Union address when he lamented, “for too long, countless American children have been trapped in failing government schools.” Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos also championed this view, famously asserting that the organization she once led, the Department of Education, should not exist.

DeVos has worked to recast education as a “private good” rather than a “public good” and as such should be subject to market forces. In this, she is echoing influential conservative thought leaders and think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. These organizations have long advocated doing away with the “parasitic school monopoly” to “inject market forces back into the field of education.”

While these free-market champions want government out of education, they still want government to pay for education. President Trump proposed $5 billion in federal tax credits to pay for private and alternative education. Arizona provides a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for private education expenses. Wisconsin allows a tax deduction of up to $10,000 for private school tuition. In all, eighteen states currently have tax credit scholarship programs. At root, school choice simply means public money for private education.

Federal, state, and local governments provide $764.7 billion or $15,120 per pupil to fund K-12 public education. Education entrepreneurs hoping to claim some of those funds are offering “for profit” schools as the best way to get the government out of the schools. As serial “edupreneur” (an education entrepreneur) Chris Whittle puts it, “the best thing business can do for education is to make education a business.”

Education funding is a zero-sum game; government funds for private education come at the expense of public schools. Advocates of school choice argue to “fund students, not systems.” As a result, per-student spending should follow them to their chosen educational institution, sparking competition between edupreneurs and public educators for government funding. Charter and for-profit schools compete aggressively for these funds by instilling fear and discontent among parents.

The Innovative Arts Academy in Pennsylvania used fear tactics to lure students from public schools. A postcard was sent to households in the area featuring a stock photo of a despondent teenager with a reprint of a local newspaper headline about a drug arrest at the local high school. The postcard then asks “Why worry about this type of student at school? Come visit Arts Academy Charter School. Now enrolling grades 6-12.” The postcard concludes with the warning “Classes Almost Full!”

Scare tactics and manipulative advertising undermine trust in public schools. And as trust is eroded, support for publicly funded alternatives is bolstered. This same dynamic is at work in the claims of “indoctrination” so pervasive in the parental rights, school choice movement.

“I did not serve 20 years in the Marine Corps to watch our country being destroyed and our children being indoctrinated to hate their country,” said Iowa Representative Steve Holt promoting Iowa’s school voucher program. Governor Kim Reynolds agreed. “It is again just a small but loud minority that’s trying to change our education system and indoctrinate our children. They think patriotism is racist and pornographic library books are education.”

Schools are often called “Leftist enforced reeducation centers,” “Maoist indoctrination camps,” and “Marxist training centers.” As the Heritage Foundation warns, this leaves parents with little choice. “The only way for parents to protect their children from potentially harmful ideological indoctrination is to send them to another school or to homeschool them.”

This is not feasible for families who cannot afford a private education and unfair to those who can. “It would be more just,” suggests Heritage’s Melissa Moschella, “for public education funding to be channeled through parental choice to pay for tuition at whichever school parents think best for their child.” For many parents, what is best for their child is an educational setting that affirms and reenforces their religious beliefs.

Most individuals actively involved in the parental rights and school choice movements have a strong affinity and often an explicit association with conservative Christianity. Moms for Liberty frequently speaks of their efforts as a “ministry and calling.” The group Growing Freedom for Idaho demanded that librarians “judge books under God’s standards and not of the world’s standards.”

The American Federation for Children, founded and funded by Betsy DeVos, bills itself as the leading advocate of school choice. Speaking to a Christian advocacy group in 2001, Devos and her husband Dick DeVos explained that they became involved in advocating for school choice because “the Lord led us there.”

Most individuals actively involved in the parental rights and school choice movements have a strong affinity and often an explicit association with conservative Christianity.

“There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education,” Devos explained when asked if public funds should be available to pay for private religious schools. “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Her husband elaborated. “We are working … to allow for our Christian worldview, … and to provide for a more expanded opportunity someday for all parents to be able to educate their children in a school that reflects their world view.”

That day has arrived.

For decades, the establishment clause of the US constitution has been interpreted as forbidding the use of public funds for sectarian education. That changed with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2022. A group of parents challenged a Maine law that subsidizes private school tuition for students living in rural areas without a high school and excluded religious schools. These parents sued to compel the state to pay for a “biblically based” education such as that available at Temple Academy and Bangor Christian Schools, schools at the center of the lawsuit.

Temple Academy in Waterville, Maine, states its mission is “to know the Lord Jesus Christ and to make Him known. To provide every student with the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. [and] To foster within each student an attitude of love and reverence for the Bible as the infallible, inerrant, and authoritative Word of God.” The other, Bangor Christian Schools, has as its objective “to develop within each student a Christian world view and Christian philosophy of life.”

The conservative majority of the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the parents. If a state subsidizes any private schools, it must subsidize all private schools, including those explicitly religious and sectarian. Maine taxpayers must financially support sectarian religious institutions like Temple Academy and Bangor Christian, even if doing so violates their personal beliefs and values. Thus some Maine residents would be subsidizing schools that exclude their own families.

Justice Breyer noted in his dissent that both schools “have admissions policies that allow them to deny enrollment to students based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and religion, and both schools require their teachers to be born-again Christians.”

State funds for private school tuition and charter school support rarely come from increased taxes. Instead, they are diverted from the funding allocated for public schools. A recent report by the Florida Policy Institute found that in 2023 $1.3 billion in taxpayer funds will be diverted from public school funds to school vouchers. This represents 10 percent of the overall funding the state had initially allocated for public school districts for the 2022-2023 school year. In Florida and other states with school voucher programs, most of that money will go to religious schools.

This is unsurprising as many state voucher programs originate in Christian advocacy groups. Ohio’s voucher legislation, House Bill 290, would allow “families to choose the option for all computed funding amounts associated with students’ education,” which is “to follow them to the public and nonpublic schools they attend.” This was copied from model legislation authored by the Center for Christian Values and the Ohio Christian Education Network. The passage of the bill would be a funding windfall for affiliated schools.

Christian education activists are not satisfied with taxpayers funding private religious education. Many want to transform the public school system itself into a Christ-centered enterprise. Florida representative Kim Daniels introduced legislation (HB195) to make bible instruction mandatory in Florida public schools. In Kentucky, the Biblical Literacy Act (HB 128) calls for instruction “on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, [and] the New Testament.” Oklahoma’s new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Ryan Walters, recently formed a faith-based advisory committee. The creation of this body is in response to demands that the state “take every action possible to allow corporate prayer and expressions of faith in God back in our public school system.”

Demands like this are becoming increasingly common themes at school board meetings across the country, and those meetings are becoming more and more combative. A school board in Virginia was warned by an angry attendee, “We, the parents, are awake, we’re organized, and we’re extremely pissed off.” The man continued, “We’re gonna replace every board member in here with people just like me … American patriots who believe in the Constitution of the United States and Jesus Christ above!”

Outbursts and threats are now the norm for many school board meetings, but the angriest of attendees do not represent the majority of parents and may not even be parents themselves. The loudest voices in school board meetings often do not have children in the school district, or in the public school system at all.

The elementary school curriculum in Williamson County, Tennessee was challenged leading to a Moms for Liberty-backed lawsuit against the school district. The district has over 18,000 students. Only thirty-seven people complained, fourteen of which were people without children in the district.

Opportunistic politicians, education disruptors and edupreneurs, conservative activists, and religious ideologues fan the flames of parental discontent because it serves their purposes to do so. Parents are being manipulated by a vocal and vitriolic minority in pursuit of their own agendas. As the 2024 presidential election approaches, these issues and their champions will become even more toxic and polarizing.

This has the potential to cause damage beyond classrooms and libraries. As political scientists, Jennifer McCoy and Murat Somer write, “polarizing politics always carries the risk of taking on a life of its own, eviscerating cross-cutting ties and nonpartisan channels for compromise, and becoming pernicious.”

Shortly before a school board meeting in western Wisconsin, Tim Nordin, president of the Eau Claire Area School District, received an email from someone using the alias “Kill All Marxist Teachers.”

“I am going to kill you and shoot up your next school-board meeting for promoting the horrific, radical transgender agenda. It’s now time to declare war on you pedos. I am going to kill you and your entire family,”

This is the environment the parental rights movement is creating for our children and their teachers.