Families & the Community

‘Parental Rights’ Poised to Be Hot Issue in School Board Races

By Eesha Pendharkar — October 05, 2022 6 min read
Protesters hold signs at a Moms for Liberty rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on October 9, 2021. About 100 people attended the rally to protest mask and vaccine mandates.
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Moms for Liberty, a rapidly growing right-wing parent group that has pushed for book bans and against equity initiatives in schools nationwide over the last year, is now asking school board candidates to sign a pledge to uphold parental rights if elected.

The group offered training to candidates wanting to run for school board at its first ever summit in July, held about a year after the group was formed. At the same summit, Moms for Liberty invited guests, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and far-right podcaster James Lindsay, who spoke against COVID-19 safety measures and “critical race theory” in schools. Critical race theory has often been co-opted by conservatives to describe and demonize equity and inclusion efforts in schools, such as inclusive curricula, classes about African American or Asian American studies, and books on those same subjects.

The group’s latest initiative is the parent pledge, which has slightly different versions available for candidates running for local school board elections and people wanting to get involved in their districts to sign and share on social media.

“I pledge to honor the fundamental rights of parents including, but not limited to the right to direct the education, medical care, and moral upbringing of their children,” the pledge for school board candidates reads. “I pledge to advance policies that strengthen parental involvement and decisionmaking, increase transparency, defend against government overreach, and secure parental rights at all levels of government.”

Moms for Liberty denied more than a dozen requests since July from Education Week for interviews about its school board initiatives, role in book-banning efforts, and most recently, the parent pledge. In a press release accompanying the announcement of the pledge, the group said it will help parents choose whom to vote for in state and local elections across the country. On the website, the group clarifies that signing the pledge does not guarantee an endorsement from Moms for Liberty.

“The COVID pandemic awakened parents to how shut out they were from the public education establishment. Now, they will never go back to sleep,” cofounders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich said in a press release.“We are committed to staying involved in the education of our children in public school, even if this threatens the power of unions who have controlled school boards for decades.”

‘Parental rights’ is a political tactic, experts say

For many months, conservative groups have used the parental rights argument to push for book bans and for curriculum transparency bills, where districts have to post their curriculum online for parent approval. They’ve also used the same reasoning for supporting district- and state-level policies restricting the freedom of transgender and gender-nonconforming students to change pronouns in favor of mandating parental approval for students to change pronouns or seek gender-affirming counseling in schools. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill (called that by opponents of the bill), which bans education about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, is officially termed the “Parental Rights in Education” bill.

At the Moms for Liberty summit, Desantis’ wife, Casey DeSantis, promoted her husband’s endorsement for school board candidates as a name recognition tool, and not a political affiliation.

“It’s not about [politics], it’s about principle, getting involved and helping good people get to a point where they can have leadership skills,” the governor’s wife said. “I think parents were peering into the classroom during COVID. And they saw a lot of this stuff. And they said, you know, this isn’t gonna fly on my watch. But for the first time, you see people say, I’m going to do something about this.”

Some Republican politicians—most notably Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin—have run successful campaigns by being able to mobilize suburban voters to advocate for parental rights, according to Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and professor of political science at Columbia.

Now, the fight seems to be seeping into school board elections, which generally attract low voter turnout and are, in most states, supposed to be nonpartisan.

“This framing in terms of parental rights was something that seemed to catch fire and and particularly seemed to attract some suburban voters who had drifted a little bit away from Republicans because of their unhappiness with elements of the Trump agenda,” Henig said.

“What we’re seeing now,” he added, “is the increased role of national party and ideological forces that are feeding off of these local concerns and trying to turn them into issues that will mobilize their base and swing certain voters.”

Groups such as Moms for Liberty are making a tactical argument for parental rights based both on legitimate concern in local communities about how schools handled COVID and on how they handle topics some deem controversial, such as race and racism and LGBTQ issues, Henig said. But the national involvement and funding funneled through groups such as Moms for Liberty impacting local school board races is new, Henig said.

“Democrats are starting to see that this issue may actually end up being valuable to them,” he continued, “because they can use this to [their advantage] that some of these groups are extreme, and they’re pursuing an extremist agenda.”

Which side this political tussle might eventually favor is up in the air, Henig said, but while it unfolds, students—especially students of color and LGBTQ students—are at risk of losing access to education about important issues because of book bans and legislative censorship on teaching of important societal and historical events, experts have said.

Democratic parent groups have also geared up

Katie Paris, the founder of the Democratic parents group Red Wine and Blue, has been involved in counteracting the impacts of groups such as Moms for Liberty on local school boards since last year. She said that, in her experience, the majority of parents don’t support making any students feel they are being excluded or rejected through anti-LGBTQ legislation orcensorship on conversations about race or book bans.

“I don’t see this as parents versus parents,” she said. “I see this as parents versus outside groups that are attempting to scare some parents in order to maintain or gain political power.”

“[Parental rights] is a nice-sounding phrase that is being used, unfortunately, to advance a political ideology,” Paris added.

Her organization offers “troublemaker trainings” for parents that explain how to fight against requests to ban books and the conservative agendas parents might bring to school boards. Most recently, her group has launched a search tool where voters can put in their address and see which school board candidates up for election this year “support accurate and honest education.”

The search tool includes overviews of candidates running for school board in four states where Red Wine and Blue is staffed: Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“There’s a lot of language that’s being used to mask some pretty extremist views,” Paris said. “So we’re just trying to help these mainstream parents out with a resource that they can go to and understand for real where these candidates actually stand.”

Red Wine and Blue also partners with organizations that train candidates to run for school board, much like Moms for Liberty.

Paris also wants to encourage parents to continue to show up at meetings and stay involved to counter groups like Moms for Liberty.

“It’s a reality check on the whole situation,” she said, “the temperature comes down and it gives the school board the confidence to move on about their business.”

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as ‘Parental Rights’ Poised to Be Hot Issue in School Board Races

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