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What "Parental Rights" Debates are Getting Wrong

In our debased political discourse, “parental rights” has become a rallying cry for the GOP, who have proposed a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” amendment “to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats,” and an object of scorn for progressives, portrayed as a cynical way to air “cultural grievances.” Caricatures abound on all sides: the self-sacrificing parent, usually a mother, who stands up for children against an uncaring educational bureaucracy is the funhouse mirror image of the entitled Karen who screams unreasonable demands at beleaguered educators, the true champions of children.

The ubiquity of these simplistic archetypes shows that we’re getting the parental rights conversation completely wrong. For one, parents are not a monolithic group. Their interests are not inherently at odds with those of educators, or aligned with those of children—even their own—and yet parental participation in their children’s education is integral to its success.

White conservative mothers dominate the parental rights discourse. Activist groups such as Moms for Liberty or Parents Defending Education are its face, whether celebrated for speaking out against critical race theory, comprehensive sex education, and social emotional learning or condemned by progressives for doing the same. Educational conservatives are not uniquely white and female, but there’s historical precedent for why this image endures: a major political transformation of the last fifty years was the mobilization of precisely this demographic through local elections to resist progressive education and social policy. Building on the feminist victories that gained women access to the political sphere from which they had long been excluded, conservatives such as Phyllis Schlafly deftly mobilized fellow white mothers to resist such curricula and the broader policies to which they perceived to be connected: the Equal Rights Amendment, the Roe v. Wade decision, and desegregation. The success of these overwhelmingly white women at putting these issues on the national agenda through local organizing, and at claiming the mantle of parental prerogative more broadly, means that it’s impossible to hear the almost identical rhetoric today—about teacher brainwashingmoral perversion, and socialist agendas—and not associate it with this past activism. 

Whatever you think of the archetypal angry white mother fighting for her version of educational justice, she understandably looms large. But this image of the parental activist has always been woefully incomplete. Even in terms of conservative mobilization, in the same years Schlafly organized, Mexican-Americans in California wrote letters to the editor protesting new ethnic studies curricula and minority hiring plans, for presuming their children were incapable of learning from a “blonde-haired, blue-eyed teacher.” As comprehensive sex education curricula increasingly taught about contraception and HIV-AIDS and incensed religious parents, “multicultural conservatives” often opposed such programs most fervently. Today, Indian immigrant Asra Nomani is one of the most outspoken defenders of parents’ right to resist progressive education, in part because she believes it hampers social justice.

Read entire article at Observer