Guest Commentary: It’s Not about Parental Rights

by Robert Bulman

Moms for Liberty and other conservative organizations have been loudly claiming recently that we need to increase “parental rights” in public education. Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, recently said, “Parental rights will be the number one domestic issue for the 2024 election.” This rallying cry for parental rights is disingenuous since parents of students in American public schools already enjoy an abundance of rights. Such rights are guaranteed by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), and Supreme Court rulings such as Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. The Society of Sisters (1925).

Parents have the right to send their children to tax-supported public schools regardless of the students’ race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, etc. Parents have the right to democratically participate in state, county, and local school district governance. Parents have the right to participate in school-level organizations such as the PTA and site councils. Parents have the right to access their child’s academic records, to view the curriculum, to communicate with teachers and staff, to volunteer, and to observe classrooms. Parents have the right to opt their children out of sexual health instruction. Parents have the right to opt their children out of school surveys. Parents have the right to opt their children out of standardized tests. Parents have the right to choose independent private schools or private religious schools instead of public schools. Parents have the right to homeschool their children.

In addition to parents, students have rights in public schools. California Education Code section 220 protects students from “discrimination on the basis of disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic that is contained in the definition of hate crimes.” This code and the Department of Education guidelines protect the rights of students to be their authentic selves in school, free of discrimination and harassment.

The current political effort to boost “parental rights” is less about protecting rights and more about asserting an authoritarian view of what public schools should teach about race, sex, and gender. Moms for Liberty has adopted conspiracy theories about the public education system. The goals of public schools, they write hyperbolically on their national organization’s web site, are “…to psychologically manipulate students to accept the progressive ideology that supports gender fluidity, sexual preference exploration, and systemic oppression” and to “disrupt and dismantle America.”

These attacks on the public schools can be seen as part of a long chain of efforts by conservatives over the decades to hobble aspects of public education that they disagree with and to wage battles in the culture wars. “Parental rights” were invoked to prevent the racial integration of our schools after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and again in the 1970s against busing. “Parental rights” have been invoked to prevent sex education in the public schools. “Parental rights” have been invoked to resist efforts to equalize school funding between urban and suburban school districts. “Parental rights” have been invoked in attempts to redistribute funds from public schools to private-school voucher programs. “Parental rights” are currently being invoked to strip the rights of LGBTQ students in schools, to remove books from school and public libraries, and to prevent an honest discussion of race in public schools.

Universal public education is one of the greatest of American institutions. Public schools have been a part of the fabric of our nation to teach students not only to be workers in the capitalist marketplace, but to be productive citizens in our democratic republic. Public education is both a private good and a public good. Private individuals benefit from the skills that publicly supported schools provide, and the health of our democratic republic relies on the common education provided to our diverse population. The groups carrying the banner of “parental rights” see only the private function of schools and bristle when the public interests are at odds with their private views.

The mission of public education has always included efforts to expand equitable access to schooling, to support the well-being and safety of students, and to provide the social and civic skills required to grow not only as private individuals, but as members of our diverse American society. It is the right of all parents to opt out of the publicly funded and democratically governed school system if they have objections to it. But it is not their right to impose their narrow views on the rest of us. That’s not how freedom works. That’s not how democracy works. It took us several generations to expand educational opportunities and resources to all students regardless of their race, religion, social class, sexual orientation, and gender identity. To retreat now from such democratic progress would allow authoritarianism to worm its way into our communities.
Robert Bulman is a Professor of Sociology at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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