Fight over parental rights in schools reaches boiling point

The debate over parents’ rights regarding how schools operate and what material they teach is reaching a boiling point in the U.S., with numerous legal and political battles playing out across the country.

This week the Florida Senate Education Committee passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, also known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation would block school districts from allowing discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

Across the country in San Francisco, parents have expressed outrage over the city’s school board not going back to in-person classes sooner during the pandemic, moves to rename schools amid the closures, and a decision to do away with one high school’s merit-based admissions system. That outrage has led to a recall vote for three members of the board, which is set to take place on Monday.

And in Virginia, three Democrats in the state Senate joined with Republicans on Wednesday in voting to make masks optional in the commonwealth’s K-12 classrooms, something Gov. Glenn Youngkin has struggled to achieve with an executive order that is being fought in the courts.

The nationwide anger from parents about their children’s education first surfaced during a series of contentious school board meetings in Loudoun County, Va. last year, and has since been playing a role in the country’s most intense political, legal, and cultural battles.

Conservatives and parents’ rights activists argue that this anger stems from parents pushing back against what they say is the influence institutions like Hollywood, corporate America, and the government have in the classroom.

“This whole regime is at war with the parents,” said Terry Schilling, president of the conservative American Principles Project. “They just want to raise their families according to their values and take them to church and not have people interfere, but they’re interfering with that and that’s why there’s a big conflict right now.”

The American Principles Project, which describes itself as “America’s top defender of the family,” is one of a number of conservative groups devoted to touting parents’ influence inside and outside the classroom.

Schilling said the battle between parents’ rights activists and institutions like school boards is the first of its kind. 

“For the first time across the country, it doesn’t matter if you’re in California or in Texas, parents’ rights to raise their children and instill values in them are being taken away,” he said, citing mask and vaccine mandates, critical race theory and discussions of gender and sexuality in the classroom.

Activists say the movement originated with the coronavirus lockdowns in 2020, which gave parents a closer look at their children’s school curriculum.

“Most people’s eyes were opened to the fact that it wasn’t just limited to academics anymore,” said Alleigh Marré, president of the right-leaning Free to Learn Coalition. “There’s a lot more activism that we’re seeing in the classroom and then this step-back from academics.”

School boards have been at the heart of the country’s latest culture war. While school board meetings rarely made national coverage prior to the pandemic, over the past year the news has been filled with scenes of crowded, raucous school board meetings involving discussions over transgender rights in the classroom, critical race theory and mask mandates.

The access voters have to school boards has made it easier for parents and activists to attend the meetings and organize around them. Conservatives argue that the access school board members have to parents and voters gives them no excuse not to listen to their concerns and demands.

“You’re not a member of Congress, you’re not a U.S. senator that’s responsible for an entire state, you are responsible for the citizens in your county, and there is no excuse whatsoever that you should be blocking parents or limiting their ability to communicate their political opinions on what should be happening in education policy at the local level,” Schilling said.

The energy stemming from the parents’ rights movement played out in the Virginia governor’s race, with now-Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) tapping into the energy among disgruntled parents.

However, not every parent-led protest during the coronavirus pandemic has been led from the right. In fact, the parent-led protests that have emerged across the country during the pandemic represent a broad range of views that don’t necessarily fit neatly into political categories.

“If you have so-called parents’ rights groups popping up and taking action in extremely different cities, different partisan makeups, socioeconomic [groups], there’s clearly something happening that’s much larger and that is the pandemic,” said Tyler Law, a California-based Democratic strategist.

“The pandemic has caused massive amounts of frustration, anger and despair,” Law said. “It’s just not Republicans, Democrats, or people in the middle; everyone was impacted by this, and no one more than parents.”

In the liberal bastion of San Francisco, three Democratic school board members are facing a recall effort, which has been backed by the city’s Democratic Mayor London Breed.

“Sadly, our school board’s priorities have often been severely misplaced,” Breed said in a statement in November. “During such a difficult time, the decisions we make for our children will have long-term impacts. Which is why it is so important to have leadership that will tackle these challenges head-on. … Our kids must come first.”

And this week a number of Democratic governors announced they would begin easing mask requirements in their states, a demand that many parents’ rights groups have been calling for.

Democrats say that the party’s losses in Virginia and New Jersey are, in part, a result of Democrats being the party in control at a time when there is so much frustration during the pandemic.

“There’s a massive amount of frustration and backlash right now and Democrats are in charge,” Law said. “The unfortunate challenge for Democrats is at a moment when people are just at their breaking point over COVID, we’re in charge of the presidency, the Senate, and the House.”

However, Law said he believes the parent-led protests against school systems will eventually fade away along with the pandemic.

“People may be more engaged with school board elections than they’ve ever been,” he said. “I find it very hard to believe years from now school boards are going to be at the front of the mind.” 

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