Why the Parental Rights Movement Is Making a Comeback

Supposed parental advocates are now all for government intervention to "protect" kids. But the last thing they want is for the kids to have actual power.

Graphic illustration of a subway map
I can think of no force more revolutionary than an entire generation of young people who grow up knowing their history, power, identity, and emotional landscape, and the importance of connection and community across differences. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

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Public school is a hard place to be a kid these days. School should be where kids try to learn algebra and not embarrass themselves in front of their crushes. Instead, they have to navigate mask wars, rampant bullying, learning loss, and staffing shortages.

Not to mention they’re now part of a generation atomized and traumatized by the pandemic, just trying to figure out how to learn together and become a community again. Whether we’ve burned all our masks in a fit of catharsis or still rock the N95s, most of us just want our students (and teachers!) to get everything they need to start to heal and thrive once more.

But not all of us.

Across the country, far-right political operators are exploiting this moment of educational desperation—and they’re using a familiar tactic. These bad-faith actors have pitted parents against teachers, keeping all of us distracted and shouting at our neighbors while they impose their radically retrograde agenda on public school students across the country. And they’re covering up for this naked campaign against young people by doing it under the banner of defending “parents’ rights.”

Parents have—and should have—significant rights when it comes to their kid’s education. They already have the right to get all kinds of information from teachers and administrators, the right to elect people to the boards of education that oversee schools, and the right to opt their children out of certain classes and activities. Some can choose between public school and homeschooling, and those who can afford it have the right to send their kids to private school. That’s what makes “parents’ rights” such effective rhetoric: It fits into a frame that already makes sense to most people.

But this specific rallying cry has deep ties to the racist history of the “school choice” movement, which dates back at least to white parents’ efforts to keep their kids from going to school with kids of color in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. And the odds are good that if you encounter someone yelling about parents’ rights even today, they’re not actually a fan of public schools.

Many of the same people invoking their “parental rights” to control the curriculum for every public school student already send their kids to private school, and even more of them are advocates for gutting our entire public school system under the guise of “school choice.” That’s why I’m going to stop using their pet phrase from here on out, and instead refer to them more accurately as the anti-public-school lobby (APSL).

There are more of us who want this generation and the generations that follow to thrive than there are red-faced reactionaries freaking out about losing their grip on power.

That the “rights” the APSL advocates are specifically intended for white, cisgender, straight parents often (but not always) goes unspoken, it’s not hard to see it in their actions—their pet legislation undermines the rights of parents of color to make sure their kids, and their kid’s peers, learn their own history. The APSL is trying to make it illegal for students to even acknowledge that their parents are LGBTQ+. And the laws they’re jamming through stomp all over the rights of the majority of parents who want their children to have quality relationships and receive thorough sex education at school—an education that has, not incidentally, been proven to reduce bullying and gender-based violence, improve academic performance, and strengthen young people’s mental health, many of the things they so urgently need right now.

Nowhere is the true agenda of the APSL clearer than in Texas, where the same hard-right forces that rely on arguments about the rights of parents to censor anything in the public school curriculum that might help kids learn to think for themselves and treat each other well are also doing everything they can to remove real-live parents’ right to support, nurture, and protect their own transgender children.

If parents are due so much control over their kids that they can change an entire school’s curriculum just by flexing their “right” to do so, surely parents should have the fundamental right to provide their children with medically necessary care as the American Pediatric Academy recommends, right? Of course not. Instead, these supposed parental advocates are suddenly all about government intervention to “protect” children from their parents.

Right-wing rhetoric about child abuse has escalated in parallel with the APSL campaign. Cynically whipping up panic about child abuse while advocating an agenda that actively harms kids is a specialty of the QAnon crowd, as we saw recently during Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

In recent years, “protect the children” has become a terrifying dog whistle to these conspiracy theorists, who sometimes show up to do real-world violence when they hear the call. But long before Q was invented, the protection of imaginary children has served as an excuse for attacks that would otherwise be indefensible, from opposition to gay marriage and women’s rights to work outside the home and leave their husbands to campaigns to allow the government to literally steal Native children from their families.

But while the APSL is all about “protection” when it comes to children, one thing the movement never seems to care about is children’s rights. They’re happy to use certain vulnerable young people as props when it’s convenient, but the last thing they want is for young people to have actual power—the power of knowing the truth about our racist past and present, the power of understanding the endless transformative possibilities of gender and orientation, the incredible power that quality relationships and sexuality education can give to a young person.

It’s worth repeating: Kids who receive good sex ed do better academically; are at less risk of experiencing actual child abuse, bullying, and gender-based violence; are more egalitarian; and are likelier to be effective bystanders if they see someone being harassed or abused. Not coincidentally, they’re also kids who know their rights. Quality sex ed teaches them that their body belongs to them, that they have the right to set boundaries with other people, and that they deserve happy and healthy relationships. Kids who get good sex ed aren’t just safer. They’re stronger, more empathetic, and more invested in each other. And they’re less likely to put up with people who want to control, exploit, or manipulate them.

It’s no wonder conservatives are doing anything they can to shut down this kind of education. It’s no wonder they’ve spent decades driving our tax dollars to fund its exact opposite in the form of abstinence-only “education,” the kind that teaches already oppressed kids—kids of color and/or girls, queer, and trans kids in particular—to internalize shame and accept abuse. The conservative project wants to “conserve” a power structure that relies on oppressed kids growing compliantly into oppressed adults and never once complaining. Teaching kids about their own power will upset their entire plan, which is why they are all in on certain parents’ “rights,” but never the rights of young people.

And that’s exactly why we should be teaching kids about their own power. It’s easy to imagine the current “school wars” as none of our business if we’re not in school or parenting someone who is. But I can think of no force more revolutionary than an entire generation of young people who grow up knowing their history, power, identity, and emotional landscape, and the importance of connection and community across differences. And there are more of us who want this generation and the generations that follow to thrive than there are red-faced reactionaries freaking out about losing their grip on power.

So let’s act like it. Let’s show up and speak up at school board meetings, vote in school board elections—heck, let’s some of us run for school board. After all, won’t somebody think of the children?