s kids return to school, the focus on math, science, and reading has been sidelined by campaigns mounted in the name of “parents’ rights.” Advocates are demanding that books be banned from curricula and school libraries, targeting teachers and administrators based on viewpoints, and fighting for control of education boards. There is no question that parents deserve a say in shaping their children’s educations; they have moral and legal responsibility for their children, and the freedom to make fundamental decisions for their families. But the rallying cry of “parents’ rights” is being wielded to do far more than give parents their rightful voice. Public schools are becoming political battlefields and fracturing families, diverting attention from education and learning, as well as wasting time and energy.
My children include a 2022 graduate from public schools and an incoming sophomore in high school. I am a teacher and I can voice my opinions. We objected when my son felt uncomfortable singing religious songs at an elementary school holiday concert. I was shocked at how little in-person learning my children received during Covid and expressed my concern to the school leadership.
But the current parents’ rights movement goes well beyond the usual channels of dialogue between families and schools—parent-teacher conferences, PTA meetings, and calls to the principal. Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, and Parental Rights Foundation lead the organized effort to create this movement. They want to encourage parents to challenge what’s being taught in schools, the books available for students and the authority teachers and administrators have to do their jobs. The campaign is more than a thoughtful effort to encourage reconsideration of some controversial school curricula, or to raise questions about the appropriateness and age of particular narratives and materials. Instead, it focuses on censorship and chills speech in schools all across the nation.
In Alpine, Utah, in August, 52 books, including Judy Blume’s Forever and Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes, were pulled from school library shelves after an “internal audit” initiated by the school board determined that they contained “sensitive material” and lacked “literary merit.” After an outcry, the district pulled back slightly, limiting access to the targeted books to students whose parents “opt-in” and making them available to their kids. Florida, Missouri. Georgia. Tennessee. Texas. Utah and other states have passed new laws that limit books’ availability in schools. Sometimes, this has been done under severe penalties to teachers. In our latest report, PEN America (the organization that I direct) has recorded more than 2,500 book thefts between July 2021 to June 2022.
These measures may be popular because of the rapid pace at which book bans are being implemented across the nation. But surveys show that upwards of 70% of Americans, including both Democrats and Republicans, oppose these bans; a 2022 Harris poll revealed just 12% of respondents favor banning books on “divisive topics.” In the name of vindicating their “rights,” parents with special interests are pursuing tactics that the overwhelming majority of parents and citizens reject.
These are the origins of parental rights. This explains why their current focus on reading and curricula restriction is so wrong and counterproductive. Michael P. Farris was the architect of homeschooling, advocating parents to have their children educated privately at home. He is the driving force behind Parental Rights Foundation. Homeschooling won adherents in the 1970s and ’80s as court rulings, including in a 1986 Tennessee case in which Farris was a plaintiff, rejected parents’ efforts to get certain books – including Macbeth – removed from the curriculum on the grounds that they offended families’ religious beliefs. When these litigants failed to enlist the support of courts to impose their religious preferences in public school classrooms, Farris and his allies shifted tactics, seeking to be “left alone by the government” to educate their children as they saw fit.
See More: What Kids Can Learn from the Fight for Education
The new efforts of the past year represent a return to Farris’s original approach. In 2007, Farris launched ParentalRights.org, a group that is now at the forefront of mobilizing parents against what its website describes as “’expert’ agents of the state,” namely teachers, librarians, and principals. ParentalRights.org’s current President, Will Estrada, has celebrated the movement’s rising influence, saying: “We’ve been speaking into the void,” whereas now, “suddenly everyone cares about parental rights.”
ParentalRights.org played a key organizing role in passing “Parents’ Bill of Rights” laws in Florida (2021) and Georgia (2022), which impose heavy administrative burdens on teachers, make it easier for individual parents to challenge curricular materials for all students in a school district, and target LGBTQ+ affirming practices. Numerous similar bills have already been introduced in other states. They could become law next year.
Farris’ advocacy of parental rights has also been used to attack public education in conservative circles. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis addressed a conference organized by conservative Moms for Liberty, July. He spoke of how parents should be free to question the school’s curriculum. The conference included a session on “Gender Ideology in Our Schools. ” A movement that for years styled sought to AvoidNow, the government is trying to stop parents from controlling their education. DecreteWhat school districts and student bodies can learn and what they cannot. The rhetoric of parents’ rights has morphed from a movement aimed at constraining the power of government over education to one that is mobilizing politicians and legislatures to extend the heavy hand of the government into the classroom.
PEN America’s most recent report on book bans documented how groups organizing under the banner of parental rights curate and publicize lists of books that they view as “indoctrination,” present those lists to district officials, and then administrators remove the challenged books from school shelves. Books are now banned in bulk despite existing processes that objectively review challenged books to see if there are any concerns. This report revealed that at least 40% of bans in the United States were caused by legislation being proposed or passed. In an age where parents and lawmakers are not complaining, sudden, broad-based book bans have been a worrying new standard.
The decision-making process for schools should involve parents as stakeholders and citizens. They deserve to have their say alongside the experts judgments of teachers and principals. However, to use legislation to exempt certain stories or ideas from public scrutiny is against the principles of public education. Opting for public school over private academies and homeschooling is a sign of support for the system that will benefit entire families as well as their general interests. They are also able to pool their resources to help future generations. Although it may be true that parents are entitled to choose not to attend school regularly in order to teach their children a particular belief system, it is another thing entirely to demand that the curricula of public schools and libraries reflect these preferences.
These tactics also risk denying and defeating children’s own sense of educational and intellectual agency. The parents’ efforts to dictate to their teenagers what they read and which subjects they study will hinder children’s ability to learn the judgment and autonomy they will require in adulthood. Schools must inculcate critical thinking so that books and lessons do not have the ability to influence a person’s worldview. The main purpose of libraries, broad education, and the protection of freedom of speech is to encourage critical thinking. This is because we can be exposed to a wide range of ideas and stories that will help us form our opinions and to test them.
These same tensions, which are fueling these fights, also affect society in a wider sense. Some quarters are concerned about the social and generational changes in how people think about gender identity, racial justice and sexual orientation. It is a natural instinct for parents to try and protect their children against what may seem alien social forces or values. In an age where traditional boundaries between communities and geographic areas are being erased by internet platforms, the challenge of protecting children from these foreign values is even more challenging. Many parents find that their children are raised in an internet-oriented environment. Some have taken steps to enforce the boundaries they do control and focused on libraries and public schools.
Self-proclaimed parents’ rights organizations play on those fears. These organizations have abandoned the time-honored methods of partnership and dialogue between parents and schools and promoted the notion that government intervention is necessary to address the threat they see. Some people are frustrated by the closure of school and learning losses due to pandemics, which has caused resentment in some areas and a rise in distrust towards teachers and administrators, leading to more confrontational strategies. According to the American Federation of Teachers, there has been a sharp rise in teachers quitting over the past year. The pandemic left many children with learning disabilities and mental health problems. They now find themselves in tension-filled schools where their rights are rarely considered.
Public schools offer the opportunity to unite a rising generation of Americans in an age of increasing polarization, fragmentation and heightened polarization. If parents are worried about the books their children may find in school, they can speak to a teacher or librarian, and—even more importantly—engage with their child about the values and stories they wish to emphasize. The phrase “parents’ rights” may have a nice ring to it, but the agenda now afoot in its name should sound alarms for all those who care about the future of public education.
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