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Parental Rights or Politics?

The history of parental rights movements, the political agendas at play, and how these movements impact educators and students.
Parent-Teacher Partnership

Parental rights movements have gained much momentum in the past few years with huge potential to impact the future of public education. University of Massachusetts Lowell Associate Professor Jack Schneider and journalist Jennifer Berkshire, hosts of the education policy podcast Have You Heard, say there's more happening with the increase of these movements than meets the eye. For the past few years, parents and schools have been embroiled in controversy on everything from banned books to curriculum choices to mental health clinics on campuses. 

“This is an old strategy, using the schools as a touch point for people because they're everywhere in the United States. They're in every single community. And right now, there are 50 million students enrolled in the public schools,” Schneider says. “So if what you want to do is convince people that their way of life is being threatened, then telling stories about the schools is a really powerful way to do that. And that's not just because it's the easiest, most common touch point for Americans. It's also because schools are both literally and symbolically places where we make the future.” 

In this episode, they reflect on this history of parental rights movements, the political agendas at play, and how these movements impact educators and students.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire say we are in an uncharted territory in public education with parents' rights at the center. He's a professor and she's a journalist who have studied and written extensively about public education. 

It seems like no matter where you look today, parents are challenging what children are taught in public schools. Debates about indoctrination, woke agendas, and book bans are raging around the country. Lawmakers are often supporting parents in these movements. 

Jack and Jennifer say there's a lot more at stake than many of us even realize. I wanted to find out more about what that means and how these pushes from parents and lawmakers to alter education impact not just educators and children, but the future of public education. First, I asked Jack whether parent rights really exist. 

Jack Schneider
Jack Schneider: Parents have rights. And the real headline here about those rights is that they have not been curtailed. Those rights have not really changed for over a century and probably more than that. 

Parents did have more power and control over their children's schooling the further back you go. So go back to before the creation of taxpayer-funded public schools, go back to a time before the state exercised much authority, go back to a time where decisions were really being made at the local level by whoever was showing up to town meetings. 

Yeah. Parents had control over things like what books their kids showed up with. And they could orchestrate the firing of a teacher if they didn't like the fact that teacher got married or if they didn't like the fact that that teacher practiced a religion different from the religion practiced by the majority in that town. 

And you can see through those examples why some of those kinds of powers would have been curtailed over time, even while the rights that parents have, including the right to withdraw their children from the public education system. So the Pierce case, which went to the Supreme Court, upheld the right of parents to send their children to private schools. 

Parents can still do that. But by the way, even if you home school your child or send your child to a private school, the state still recognizes the public interest there, still recognizes the public welfare. The Supreme Court, even in cases like the Yoder case where they really deferred to the parental rights of the Amish community, which wanted to withhold education from young people-- Even in that case, the Supreme Court recognized that it has to concern itself with the public welfare and that that requires a kind of minimal education for young people, not just to ensure that they have a minimal autonomy in their own lives, but also because that affects all of us in this country. 

So yes, parental rights is a thing. No, it hasn't really changed that much. And what that tells us is really that this is a political movement. This is just the most recent enactment of what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style of American politics. 

Jill Anderson: Jennifer, do you have anything to add to that? 

Jennifer Berkshire
Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah. I think it's really instructive to go back and look at other moments in American history where this exact same cause has flared up. It's disorienting to go back to the '70s to West Virginia, where one of the most intense battles over textbooks in our history broke out. Or go back to the '90s, when there was a push to amend every state constitution to enshrine language around parental rights. 

And you will hear parents and, more importantly, organizations on the right making the exact same claims that are being made today. And what you'll find is that there is a similar anxiety underpinning all of those pushes for parent rights, that once you peel away the specific demand-- in the '90s, a lot of the complaint was about secular humanism, which we never hear about anymore. 

Although, I have noticed it popping up in some of the recent bills against Critical Race Theory, that Republicans are trying to define CRT as a religion akin to secular humanism. But for the most part, that's not a complaint that strikes a real chord. 

But what's familiar is this sense, this real anxiety that the culture is moving too fast, that parents are losing their kids, that they don't recognize who their kids want to be. And so this is an effort to retain some kind of a grasp on that. And the sad thing is it's never successful. 

They end up burning down schools as a result. But the effort to hold onto their kids and slow down the movement of cultural change is really tough. 

Jill Anderson: So is this a case of history just kind of repeating itself? Or are we in a moment that, perhaps, there's something else going on here? 

Jennifer Berkshire: There is definitely an element of history repeating itself. If you go back to that West Virginia case that I was talking about, there's a moment where the Heritage Foundation that has been so involved in all of these efforts weighs in. At that point, they're a new foundation. There are new organization in the '70s. 

And they come rushing to the scene in West Virginia, and they try to convince parents that this is the moment to flee your public schools. And they put out all sorts of documents making the case of the litany of things being taught in the public schools, including cannibalism. 

That's a charge-- we're hearing a lot about litter boxes. Nothing about cannibalism yet. So you really will feel like you're right back, that history is repeating itself. I think what's different this time and makes this moment potentially so much more treacherous is the level of political polarization. 

If you're paying attention to the debate in a lot of these red states, that something serious has changed, that they're succeeding in convincing constituents to turn their backs on their own schools, that their local school, even a school in a rural community that is the center of that community, is, for example, running a secret gender transition camp, that its goal is to train up the next generation of revolutionaries. We haven't seen these sorts of things be successful at turning families against their own schools.
And then the real effort to convince lawmakers to go all in on an agenda in hopes that they won't pay the price with their own constituents, that's different too. The stakes are higher. And we're seeing lawmakers pursue an agenda that's more radical than in the past and, frankly, not paying a price as a result. 

Jack Schneider: Yeah. As Jennifer was saying, this is an old strategy, using the schools as a touch point for people because they're everywhere in the United States. They're in every single community. And right now, there are 50 million students enrolled in the public schools. 

So if what you want to do is convince people that their way of life is being threatened, then telling stories about the schools is a really powerful way to do that. And that's not just because it's the easiest, most common touch point for Americans. It's also because schools are both literally and symbolically places where we make the future. 

When we're talking about schools, we are talking about what the United States is going to look like in 13 years when today's kindergartners graduate from high school, the world that we're going to live in 20 years from now or 30 years from now, when today's kindergarteners are our future Congress, the mayors, and city council members of our communities, business leaders. So we're talking about the metaphorical future and we're talking about the literal future. 

Because individual children-- my daughter who is a seventh grader right now is in the schools. And the future is being crafted for her every day from 8:15 until 3:10, five days a week, 180 days a year. And so that part's old. Go back and look at the arguments being made about progressive educators in the early 20th century and what a vile threat they were. Or go back to either of the red scares and look at the stories being told about America's schools being taken over by communists and leftist teachers enacting a kind of propagandistic curriculum. 

So that part is old. It's a reliable strategy. And I would differ from Jennifer just in pointing out something else that is distinct in this period. And that's that whereas previously the schools were always a means to an end-- previously, people who were using the schools for culture warring were really trying to win broader political victories. Their target was not the schools. 

And today, it's both. Today, what's different is that there actually is a concerted effort being made by conservatives-- this is now mainstream Republican Party policy, no longer on the fringes. There is a concerted effort to dismantle public education. And we are seeing it in state after state, in Iowa and Florida and Ohio and Indiana and Arizona. In Arizona, you can get a debit card with the state-per-pupil funding loaded onto it and it is untraceable how you spend that money. And that is by design because this is not about a solution to a policy problem.

Oh, well, we need to figure out how to empower parents to solve this problem. No. This is simply about pulling dollars out of public education. If parents want to spend it on an iPad or on Amazon gift cards for their friends or whatever else, the state of Arizona is powerless to track those dollars because the people behind that campaign really don't have any interest in what actually happens with those dollars, with what parents choose. 

Their motive is to destabilize public schools because they don't like the fact that public schools are publicly funded, that we spend the better part of $1 trillion if you add up state, local, and federal expenditures every year. 

They don't like the fact that we pursue the public good and not just individual private interests through the schools. They don't like the secular nature of the schools. They don't like that they're a stronghold of union power. So there's a lot not to like. That's been true among ideologues for a very long time. 

But the thing that's different now is that those people who previously were on the margins are now in the mainstream. 

Jill Anderson: Right. And it almost feels like they're actually gaining some ground with this, even though, if I understand it correctly, polls have shown that the majority of parents don't really agree with a lot of these movements or a lot of the actions that are being taken. So I think to myself, are we all asleep at the wheel? Like, what is going on here that these things are gaining so much momentum? 

Jennifer Berkshire: I think you're absolutely right. Not only do we have the polls that consistently show that parents largely hold their local schools in high regard, but the polls that matter most, the votes that people cast, show people rejecting these kind of voucher programs again and again and again. 

And I think that's one of the things that's so disturbing about what's happening right now, that it's not just that they enacted this sweeping program in Arizona that Jack was just describing. It's that you only have to go back a few years ago when voters overwhelmingly rejected it by a margin of something like 65-35. 

And the legislature then came back and said, not only are we going to ignore what you told us, but we're going to make this program even bigger. And you can go back and you can look over time, and the public almost never supports spending public dollars on private, religious education. It makes them really uncomfortable. And so you're absolutely right that there is momentum, but it's momentum against public opinion. 

Iowa enacted a sweeping program that is essentially a wealth transfer from the kids in the public schools, especially rural schools, to the wealthiest parents who already send their kids to private schools. It was debated at the state capitol for five hours and passed in the middle of the night. And they carved out an exception so that it wouldn't have to go to the committee that would add up how much it's actually going to cost. 

I think that in addition to talking about momentum, we also need to be putting these measures in the camp with a larger effort to undermine democracy. 

Jack Schneider: Yeah. The only thing that I would add to that is that we actually have a lot of evidence that when people get concrete details about these sorts of schemes, they become very uncomfortable with them. Some of these ideas, whether they be about book-banning or limiting the freedom of teachers to teach or voucher programs for supporting private schools, you do see the public can be in favor of those. A majority of folks will respond favorably. But the details are what matter. 

And so when people hear something about the nature of the books that will be banned, it's not just about making sure that students aren't exposed to pornography. That's something that we hear, people are supportive of that. But when they hear that means Toni Morrison, as is being discussed in Florida, all of a sudden they're no longer on board. You've lost them. 

Or if you're talking about would you be supportive of a voucher that would enable you to go to a private school people are generally supportive of that-- 55-45, if I'm recalling the latest polls correctly. 

But if you talk through with them, well, there are not new schools that are going to be created in your rural community, for instance. This will really just mean that there are fewer dollars for your local public school and that many of the families who presently pay private school tuition out of their own pockets will just be getting a big chunk of change back from the Treasury, all of a sudden the support craters. 

And so what really matters here is the details. And unfortunately, there's been a real political vacuum that Republicans have done what political parties do. They message this in a way that advances their own interests. But the Democratic party has been largely silent on these issues, particularly at the national level. 

It's like they don't know what's happening. That, I think, explains a lot of why we're seeing these policies that people would actually be outraged by if they knew more about them are being passed under cover of darkness or sometimes in broad daylight. 

Jill Anderson: I'm wondering how does education even begin to reckon with something like this? Because it does feel like you have one side that's really loud and another side that's just-- I keep using the phrase asleep. But it's getting that sense. 

Jennifer Berkshire: It's such a good question. Because I think one of the things that is really hard for us to wrap our heads around is that we're coming off of three decades of really incredible bipartisan agreement over why we have schools and how we measure whether they work or not. So I told my students the other day that I could play them clips from Barack Obama and George W. Bush talking about education, and they wouldn't be able to distinguish who was in what party. 

That's just remarkable when you think about it today. And yet you have right now Republicans routinely saying that this idea that we have schools to train kids for college and career, we're not going to do that anymore. Now we're going to define an effective school as, one, something that a parent chooses. But also, we're going to leave entirely up to individual parents to determine how they value what schools do. 

We're suddenly in a moment that is really different. And then the only response that the Biden Administration seems to have to that is kind of a time capsule Miguel Cardona tweet about the role of schools preparing kids to meet the demands of corporate employers and to compete with kids all over the world. 

And so this is a almost like a phantom limb syndrome, that they don't have anything else to say. They don't have another vision to go to. And meanwhile, the Republicans are steamrolling ahead with this idea that it sounds kind of appealing in a messaging way. Well, why not just let individual parents determine what kind of education they want with their kids? 

Except that it completely undercuts the case for taxpayers paying for it. It unravels this idea that schools prepare kids for something beyond their parent's imagining. So this is really uncharted territory. 

Jack Schneider: Yeah, the difference between the Democratic party and the Republican party during the late 1980s across the '90s and 2000s and even right up until the Trump presidency was not the policies they supported or even some of the rhetoric that they were using about education, as Jennifer was just alluding to. The difference is that for Democrats, that was the end of history, the education version. Whereas for Republicans it was a waystation. 

If you think about an example like school choice, for Democrats school choice was settled. Charter schools were the final compromise. We wouldn't pursue vouchers as Republicans in the 1980s and a bit prior to that had been in favor of, but we would open up public education to competition. We expose schools to the market in some limited way. At the same time, these would remain public schools open to anyone with some degree of state oversight. 

And for conservative ideologues, that wasn't the end. That wasn't the final word on school choice. That was a waystation on a march to what we're seeing now. 

Jennifer laughs. Because my favorite metaphor for describing this is to say that Democrats worked together with Republicans to build a runway, and then were flabbergasted when people like Betsy DeVos began trying to land airplanes on it. Of course that was going to happen. So Democrats remain, at least at the national level, in a kind of fog where they really thought these issues had been settled. 

Another one is test-based accountability. They were in agreement with Republicans about this. And when Jennifer says that you could play clips of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and not be able to tell who was a member of what party with regard to the way they talked about education, just look at the way they talked about standardized tests and the importance of test scores and the way that those scores could tell you about the quality of the school. 

Now, that's a little different than the school choice piece because that wasn't a waystation. It was actually a vestige of a prior Republican party policy. That was George HW Bush's vision. But prior to George HW Bush, people ought to remember a guy named Ronald Reagan, who tried to push through a voucher proposal. 

George HW Bush was a moderate, and he had a different vision that actually coincided with a vision of another person. People may remember Bill Clinton, who worked with George HW Bush in 1989 in Charlottesville at a summit that brought governors together to create the outline for what became test-based accountability. 

Well, the Democrats are still sort of stuck in 1989. And meanwhile, Republicans have reverted back to this Reagan-era vision of government dismantled, bureaucracy busted, red tape cut, and the market ruling all. 

Jill Anderson: I think about there's so many professions where we don't often go in and tell people how to do their jobs. And yet, education is not one of them. Educators are trained to do what they do. And that seems to be incredibly disregarded in this moment on top of just all of the other challenges that educators are faced on the day-to-day. I'm wondering about how this is impacting them. 

Jack Schneider: This is a topic that I'm deeply interested in both from a historical perspective and from a present policy perspective. So if you go back and you read people like sociologist Dan Lortie writing in the mid 1970s about teachers, he identifies that teachers were special but shadowed, that they occupied this kind of liminal professional position, that they were deemed as being really socially important but that their work was often viewed as easy. 

One of the reasons for that is because everybody goes to school, and therefore we all think we know what it takes to be a teacher. He called that the apprenticeship of observation. 

There are other reasons why teaching has had only a kind of liminal professional status. Another one is that it's a feminized profession. It was intentionally feminized in the late 19th and early 20th century. And we can see this in other feminized professions like nursing where there is just a weaker claim on professionalism because we live in a sexist society. 

So that part is not new. What's new here is that, first, I'd say there was a concerted attack on educators by both parties for a couple of decades. And so Jennifer was talking earlier about Barack Obama and George W Bush. Well, both of them talked about getting bad teachers out of classrooms. 

Recall magazine covers with rotten apples and Michelle Rhee holding her broom and efforts at performance pay and value-added measures of teacher performance in classrooms using student standardized test scores to identify, quote-unquote, "weak teachers," many of whom the year prior had been identified by this faulty methodology as being excellent teachers. 

So that really did a lot of damage to decades of basically saying that educators are self-interested, that their unions are essentially rackets, that they're like an education mafia, which is something that only the hard right had argued prior to that. And you've got mainstream Democrats making that argument through the 2000s and early 2010s. 

And then also just the declining value of a professional position as a teacher. And what I mean is both the declining value to an educator that they previously had gotten out of teaching, in the sense of feeling like they're doing important work, feeling good about their jobs-- and that has to do with the sustained attack on the profession. And then the declining value in terms of take-home dollars. We've seen a decline in teacher pay over time relative to similarly educated peers. 

And meanwhile, the cost of getting a college degree, which remains a basic entry level credential for educators, has gone up. And so many prospective educators never enter classrooms because it doesn't make financial sense. 

And many teachers who are in classrooms are increasingly questioning that decision because not only does it not make financial sense anymore. Suddenly, they're not getting these psychic rewards that they previously had gotten about feeling really great at the end of the day from working with young people. 

It doesn't feel so good when you go home and you hear on the news or on talk radio or read in the newspaper about all the horrible things teachers are doing to young people, which of course aren't true. But that has an effect. That matters. That builds up. And it changes the calculus that determines whether or not somebody can stay in the profession. 

Jill Anderson: Amazingly, we've gotten this far and we haven't talked about kids yet. What are their rights in all of this? 

Jennifer Berkshire: I think that's such an interesting and, frankly, almost never acknowledged part of the parent's right conversation, is that kids have rights too. And this fundamentally is about the tension between kids trying to find their own way and parents trying to hold onto them. It's the oldest story in time. 

What's so troubling but also amazing about our current moment is that if you actually talk to kids, if you interview them-- and I have the privilege of getting to do a lot of that-- as Jack likes to say, they are refusing to be put into a box. And they are out in front of the parents, they are out in front of the culture, and they are driving the expansion of civil rights. 

And no matter how many books Ron DeSantis bans, no matter how many gag orders are passed, kids are not going back in the box. So much of this is being driven by fear on the right that they have lost the kids. What accounts for the fact that kids coming out of high school voted the way they did in the midterm? If you are a Republican, you look at that demographic data and a shudder goes down your spine. 

And who are you going to blame? You're going to blame the schools. And you're going to try to fix this problem once and for all. You're going to pass a curriculum that centers on patriotism. You are going to marinate those kids in the joys and wonders of the free market. You are going to insist that they only use the bathroom that belongs to the gender that came out with at birth. 

And this is the thing that's going to fix it. And if you have the joy of talking to kids for even a few minutes, you will quickly learn just how wrong this take is. 

Jill Anderson: What happens when you have parents and legislators being the people who directly impact what a kid can and can't learn in the classroom? How does that really infringe upon kids' futures and even our future as a country? 

Jennifer Berkshire: I'll just jump in quickly here and give voice to an argument that philosophers of education have made many times over. And that's that children need to develop the kinds of values and beliefs and habits of mind that will enable them to be their own people, that that's minimal autonomy. They need to be able to examine the world around them, and that includes the values, beliefs, assumptions of their families of their parents. 

They need to develop a critical eye for the world because otherwise we have denied them that autonomy. And that's a right that young people have. And when we talk about parental rights, I think it's really important to also talk about the rights that young people have because parents aren't the only people with rights here. 

The third piece that we need to be discussing with regard to rights is the rights that all of us as citizens have to live in a society where we know that we can count on things like our fellow citizens recognizing our dignity or our fellow citizens recognizing the importance of the democratic process. So parents are not the only people who have a stake in education. 

Jill Anderson: Jack Schneider is an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. Jennifer Berkshire is a journalist focused on education. They are authors of  A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and The Future of School. They also host the education policy podcast Have You Heard

I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening. 


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