In late March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the “Parental Rights in Education” bill. This law, called the “Don’t Say Gay” law by opponents, forbids what is deemed not “age-appropriate” instruction on the topic of sexual orientation and gender identity in Florida schools. This law is a purely political move—Florida’s education system would be better served by raising teacher salaries and building new infrastructure; censoring classroom conversations around identity does nothing but harm students and teachers.
The law generated immediate backlash from Floridians and people all across the country. Florida teachers have called the law “painful and very upsetting,” and the intentional vagueness of the law has teachers self-censoring. However, since the introduction and passage of the bill, several other states have introduced and even passed legislation very similar to Florida regarding education about sexuality and gender orientation.
Across the United States, classroom conversations are not the only aspect of public education that is being limited. During the 2021-22 school year, there were 2,532 instances of books being banned in the United States. Utah’s Governor, Spencer Cox, signed into law a bill that bans “pornographic or indecent” books. Laws similar to this one are on the books in many states. In Tennessee and Florida, teachers and school libraries must have a full catalog of their books available for parents to access and contest with the school.
“Parents’ rights” in education is a rallying cry that has turned public schools into battlegrounds. Rather than using traditional methods of parental involvement in education, such as speaking directly with teachers or joining a Parent Teacher Association, new advocacy groups for parents focus on legislation that often censors teachers and school officials. For example, Utah Parents United has set up a PAC with the goal of funding candidates who “support parental rights in education.”
The problem with today’s fight for parental rights in education is that a child’s right to be well-educated overrides their parent’s right to control their child’s education. Parents can choose to send their children to private schools or homeschool them if they wish, but demanding that public schools adhere to the beliefs of individual parents is unacceptable. This type of oversight inhibits children from creating academic and intellectual agency—how are children supposed to form their own opinions on the world around them and the structures that they interact with if they are not exposed to material that challenges what they believe in?
While the courts have found that parents have lots of freedom when it comes to how they raise and educate their children, the public school system does not need to cater to any parent’s individual ideas about education. The purpose of the American public school system is to create educated citizens that can fully participate in democracy, not to educate children according to the belief systems of their parents.
There have always been parents’ rights in education—parents have always had the right not to put their children in public school. The current movement for parental rights in education is not a response to any new legislation or changes in the U.S. public school system, it is political.
Conservatives have found that they can rally constituents around parental rights in public schools. Glenn Youngkin used this strategy to secure his victory in the extremely close 2021 Virginia governor’s race. Just weeks before the election, Youngkin released an ad titled “McAuliffe Shut Us Out.” The ad spotlighted Laura Murphy, a mother who was concerned with the content of Toni Morrison’s Beloved—one of the ten most challenged books across the United States because of its exploration of the horrors of slavery—which her son was reading in English as a senior in high school.
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2021, was the governor of Virginia in 2016 when Murphy pushed for legislation that would allow parents to block sexually explicit books in school. He vetoed that bill twice, stating that school boards, not the state government or parents, were best equipped to determine what students were ready to learn about.
In October 2021, when Youngkin’s ad came out, the hot-button issues of the Virginia Governor’s race changed. Youngkin successfully shifted the focus of the race from taxes and regulations on small businesses to censorship and critical race theory in public schools (a topic rarely taught about in high school, let alone elementary school). This shift motivated the Republican voter base, and Youngkin won the race with less than a 2% margin.
This new focus on parental rights in education is not going away, and it is concerning. Schools are not a place for political posturing; they are a place for children to encounter difficult material, learn from others, and challenge themselves to form their own beliefs and opinions about the world around them. The battle for parents’ rights in education does not just harm children in the public school system, it weakens American values such as independence, equality, and self-determination and puts our democracy at risk.