Parents in Isle of Wight County, Va., recently came into a lot more power.
Emboldened by a new conservative majority, the county’s school board voted 3-2 this month to enact two policies—one that bans sexually explicit materials in K-8 instruction and another that gives parents of high school students the chance to inspect and opt their children out of learning materials and curriculum that contain sexually explicit themes.
“Parents are the basic educators of their children, particularly with their moral upbringing and their beliefs,” said John Collick, chair of the Isle of Wight board and one of the policies’ supporters. “The schools are there to add value to that education that the parents have already started.”
Isle of Wight is one example of a school district experiencing the impact of a growing parents’ rights movement.
Parents’ rights have become a staple of conservative politicians’ education agendas in recent years, especially following schools’ pandemic shutdowns. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin capitalized on parent frustration with schools in 2021 to become the state’s first Republican governor in more than a decade. A national parents’ bill of rights is a priority for members of the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The movement has led to parents’ rights policies passing at the district and state levels around the country, albeit some of them policies that largely restate rights parents already have to voice their opinions at school board meetings and transparency requirements for public school districts, experts say.
But the movement has also been a cause for concern for some educators and advocates for equity in schools, who worry the policies give conservative and often white parents an outsize voice and deepen divides between public schools and those they serve.
While parents’ efforts to force such changes in their local schools have gained momentum and attention in recent years, they’re the latest example of a decades-old tradition of parent organizing. And their movement’s legal impact is still unclear, as it’s too new for key questions related to such parents’ rights policies to have come before—and be settled by—the courts.
What are parents’ rights?
The term “parents’ rights” has been thrown around often in legislative debates and campaign rallies over the past two years. Some have used it to bolster arguments for state restrictions on school curricula and materials related to racism, sexuality, and gender identity. Others have used it to advocate for systemic changes like expanding school choice through measures such as private school vouchers.
As of last June, 84 bills filed in 26 states sought to expand parents’ rights in schools, according to FutureEd, an education policy think tank affiliated with Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. The proposals are often general in nature, arguing that parents should have the right to review curriculum, speak at school board meetings, know how school budgets are being spent, protect their children’s privacy, and know what measures schools are taking to keep students safe, all of which parents are already legally able to do.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican and chair of the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee, said those five tenets will be included in a federal parents’ bill of rights that GOP House members plan to reintroduce this spring.
But the concept of parents’ rights isn’t new. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that parents have a voice in their child’s education in a handful of court cases, such as the 1925 Pierce v. Society of Sisters decision, in which the court stated that parents have the right “to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”
“There was a general sense that parents have rights to make decisions for their kids, including in education,” said Neal McCluskey, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank. “But it was typically just thought of as a thing that you have.”
The parents’ rights policies being considered now seek to enshrine those rights in law or policies, McCluskey said.
How the parents’ rights movement came to be
The recent parents’ rights movement marks one moment in a long history of parent advocacy and organizing, FutureEd Director Thomas Toch said.
Traditionally, parents would engage with schools through participating in parent-teacher associations and fundraising, chaperoning field trips, and planning school events. Then the civil rights movement came, and parents of color started pushing for systemic changes in schools through school boards and eventually through court cases like Brown v. Board of Education, leading to racial integration in schools.
Black parents during the civil rights era were the first to make parent organizing political out of the need for better education for their children, Toch said. Decades later, parents of color in many communities have once again become well organized as they push for more experienced and effective teachers, more school funding, more public school options, and higher quality education materials.
But the pandemic brought a new group of conservative, and often white, parents into the fray, Toch said. They feel schools overstepped their bounds with COVID-19 mitigation measures like masks and by addressing race and sexuality in instruction.
“These sorts of flashpoints have emerged throughout history,” Toch said. “But today we see, in part because of the power of social media and the reach of the internet, a much more fast-moving conservative parental backlash to what they see as inappropriate government and curriculum initiatives.”
That rapid growth is what has kept the parents’ rights movement at the center of media attention. Well known groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education have created political action committees to help conservative school board members get elected. They’ve also lobbied for state laws banning books with content about race, gender, and sexuality, and pushed for more oversight of what is being taught in schools.
“[Parents] feel trapped in the indoctrination of their children in public schools,” said Suzanne Gallagher, executive director of the Oregon-based group Parents’ Rights in Education.
Gallagher doesn’t see state-level parents’ bill of rights laws as the end of the road. She’d like to see more parents run for and be elected to school boards to prevent or change policies that don’t align with their values.
“If we’re putting pressure at that level we will begin to raise candidates who can then go to state legislatures and start changing things,” Gallagher said. “We need to make this the national crisis that it is.”
What the push for parents’ rights means for schools, practically
It would take parents bringing the issue to courts to understand the legal impact of recent parents’ rights policies on schools, McCluskey said.
“I don’t know that we have enough track record of these parents’ rights bills being implemented for a long time that we can say how they work out,” he said.
But the policies are likely to have an impact on how school and district leaders approach transparency surrounding curriculum and learning materials, McCluskey said.
Such a situation has played out in Ocean City, N.J., where district leaders faced parent outrage over new state sex education standards that included instruction about gender identity and sexuality.
Over 100 people participated in a protest against the standards last September in Ocean City, expressing concerns that they would lead to “indoctrination” and “grooming” in schools, the Ocean City Sentinel reported. The protest led the local city council to adopt a parents’ bill of rights policy that gives parents the power to review curriculum and learning materials used in classrooms and opt their kids out of curriculum “that the parent believes is in conflict with [their] conscience or sincerely held moral or religious beliefs.”
The city council has no governing control over the school district in Ocean City, so the parents’ bill of rights doesn’t change what the district can do legally, Superintendent Matthew Friedman said. But the situation led the Ocean City district to be “as transparent as possible” about the standards and lessons being taught in schools, he said. The district held parent academies where district leaders showed parents the state standards, how they’ve changed over the years, clips of videos that will be shown in classes, and concrete examples of lesson plans.
“I don’t take [the parents’ bill of rights] as a negative,” Friedman said. “I’m a huge proponent of the partnership between our district and parents and guardians because that is a recipe for success. So having a piece of paper to amplify or remind people of their rights, that’s great.”
The district’s school board doesn’t plan to adopt its own parents’ bill of rights, however, as a commitment to parents’ rights is already interwoven into district policies and practices, Friedman said.
Parents’ rights connect to a push for school choice
School choice initiatives—like new laws in Iowa and Utah establishing voucher programs that let parents use public dollars to pay for private school tuition—have risen in tandem with the push for parents’ rights.
Often, the choice bills are tied to the concept of parents’ rights, with politicians arguing that parents should have a right to choose other schools if they’re concerned about what is being taught in their local public schools and that the government should support that move.
“We’ve seen an intensification of efforts to legislate choice programs that use public monies for private schooling in recent years because of the frustration that many parents experienced during the pandemic with traditional schools having to go virtual,” Toch said. “I think advocates of vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts have thought to tap into that disaffection.”
Because parents’ rights policies call for more transparency, they’re likely to lead to more support for school choice, said McCluskey, who supports the expansion of school choice.
“If parents have more information and they have the ability to choose among schools, that gives them more to work with to decide what school is the best fit for their children,” he said.
Can parents’ rights benefit everyone?
While conservative activists and politicians have led the recent push for parents’ rights laws and policies, the policies themselves are written to apply to all parents.
“Providing parents with insights into what their schools are teaching their children and how and how well is reasonable,” Toch said. “Smart school administrators have long brought parents into decision-making via curriculum committees and other ways of encouraging them to share their perspectives and in other ways to give them a voice.”
But in many cases, parents’ rights advocates have spread misinformation about what’s happening in schools, Toch said, such as a hoax that claimed schools were providing litter boxes to students who identify as furries and claims that schools were teaching critical race theory. Those instances don’t benefit schools, he said.
The conversations surrounding parents’ rights also often fail to include voices from people of color, said Lakisha Young, executive director of The Oakland REACH, a parent support and organizing group for Black and brown families in Oakland, Calif. And recent media attention to the conservative parents’ rights has pushed the voices of parents of color into the background, she said.
Young doesn’t see parents’ rights policies helping her organization or others like it.
“I think all of these things are philosophical,” Young said. “I think they’re symbolic. Somebody is going to have to take [it] and make it mean something.”
The Oakland REACH has focused its efforts on building solutions for families as their children struggle with a lack of resources and support for basics like reading and math. Young hasn’t been bothered by the conservative parents’ rights movement, as she sees her fight for better schools for students of color as completely separate.
“Our communities are in perpetual fight mode and that’s the burden,” Young said. “Anytime these families want to drop that mantle, they can and their kids will be fine. They may not get everything they want. They may be upset or whatever, but their kids are going to be able to read and do math.”
Back in Isle of Wight in Virginia, Collick doesn’t expect much to change after the school board passed its policies restricting sexually explicit material. The chairman doesn’t believe there was sexually explicit material in the district to begin with, but sees the policies as a way to prevent students from being exposed to such material in the future.
The school board is preparing to consider another policy next month that would provide a framework for how teachers can discuss race and racism and specifically ban critical race theory. The policy would direct teachers to avoid sharing their political views in the classroom, which Collick believes will “create better critical thinkers.”
“We don’t want anyone to be taught that our government is inherently racist,” he said. “We want to make sure that everybody understands that they are of value to our society no matter what their race, ethnicity, sex, or anything else is.”
Collick believes the policy changes will ultimately benefit parents.
“Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made it clear the parents have the ultimate right to decide how their children are educated,” he said. “He’s not going to back off on that and neither are we.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2023 edition of Education Week as What the Push for Parents’ Rights Means for Schools