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The Parental Rights Movement Is History Repeating Itself

Illustration of four people in black and red colors holding signs that say, "Don't Say Gay," "Education Not Indoctrination," "Stop Teaching Critical Race Theory to Our Kids, and "No Masks"

Much like the parental rights movement of the '90s, this current wave of bills banning the teaching of "divisive concepts" is driven by political power.

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Over the past year, conservative lawmakers have increasingly pushed for more parental control in public education. Seizing on parents’ grievances over mask mandates, critical race theory, trans kids playing sports, and other seemingly innocuous or fabricated issues, many Republican-led state legislatures have introduced or successfully passed a wave of bills banning the teaching of a number of so-called “divisive concepts,” including race, racism, sexism, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Although this assault on education may seem like a more recent phenomenon, this isn’t the first time the GOP has lobbied for parental control in public schools. While the conservative push for parents’ rights in education has been a long and arduous journey with ebbs and flows throughout modern American history, its recent resurgence is reminiscent of the parental rights movement of the 1990s. Once referred to as a “parents’ revolt,” Republicans rallied around the Christian conservative movement in an attempt to increase political fervor, reinvigorate the right, and dismantle the public education system.

Sparked by changing demographics and school districts’ efforts to promote diversity and equality, the movement was formed as a way to impose certain moral and religious values on students. Conservative parents were up in arms over the rise in secularism, comprehensive sex education, and — what they perceived as — the erosion of the traditional nuclear family. Their only solution to this apparent problem was to fight back against public schools by strengthening parental rights.

This backlash began in 1993 when parents in New York City ousted the chancellor of the New York City School Board for introducing a so-called “rainbow curriculum,” which sought to teach students about HIV in sex education classes and increase acceptance and awareness of LGBTQ families by including books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” in a list of recommended, but not required, readings.

This wasn’t just an isolated incident, however. Parents across the country were revolting against school districts for ushering in the most minor of reforms, if anything at all. Political organizations seized on this uproar to enact legislation that would ultimately push back against liberalism, or at least the appearance of it, by ratcheting up anti-government sentiment and demonizing the public school system as a breeding ground for liberal indoctrination.

In the following years, parental rights were included as a pillar of the GOP’s 1994 legislative agenda known as the Contract With America and the Christian Coalition’s Contract With the American Family. Even paleoconservative Pat Buchanan hitched his wagon to the movement, declaring himself the candidate of parents’ rights when he launched his presidential bid in 1995. During his campaign announcement, Buchanan vowed to “shut down the U.S. Department of Education” so parental rights could “prevail in our public schools again.”

By 1996, conservative advocacy groups, like Of The People and the American Legislative Exchange Council, had introduced parental rights amendments in 28 state legislatures, including California, Florida, New York, and Oregon, all of which sought to prevent the government and its institutions from interfering in the education and discipline of public school students.

There was one bill in particular, however, that the crusade heavily depended upon. Using Colorado as a microcosm of the movement’s success, the state legislature introduced the first ballot initiative for parental rights, which sought to enshrine a parent’s right “to direct and control the upbringing, education, values, and discipline of their children” into the Colorado State Constitution. Although polls indicated that the majority of voters were in favor of the amendment at the time, the wording was ultimately too vague and open to interpretation.

While the goal of the bill was to give parents power over the curriculum and treatment of students in public schools, the open-ended language raised concerns that the amendment would essentially bypass child abuse laws and prevent students from seeking access to birth control and mental health counseling. Even librarians and video store clerks were worried that they could face legal consequences for lending a book or movie to a child that contained content that their parents didn’t approve of.

Most importantly, however, opponents and critics were afraid that the bill would cause harm to vulnerable children and teenagers. Concerned about the welfare of students, the implications of banning educational materials, and the possibility of lawsuits, 57 percent of Colorado voters rejected the amendment and voted against it, causing the parental rights movement to lose steam and fade back into the sidelines.

Now, however, the movement has reemerged with a vengeance. Led by Republican lawmakers and political organizations like Moms for Liberty, the crusade for parents’ rights has been reinvigorated, prompting parents — most of whom are white and conservative — to interrupt school board meetings and threaten school officials for enacting mask mandates and allowing teachers to educate students about racism, discrimination, and LGBTQ rights.

Where parents were once wary about altering the school curriculum to fit their individual beliefs, they are now eager to ban certain topics and books from being taught in the classroom so that their children never have to face the risk of feeling uncomfortable when learning about historic injustices, like slavery and the civil rights movement.

Much has changed about the political climate and landscape of the country since nearly three decades ago, but one thing that remains the same is the belief among many conservatives that public schools are institutions of liberal indoctrination. This “paranoid style” of politics, which historian Richard Hofstadter once characterized as “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” has existed for hundreds of years and is still being deployed to establish an opposition so great that it creates an “us vs. them” mentality based not on facts or logic, but on irrationality and fear.

Today, more than 20 states have passed or introduced parents’ rights legislation and other similar bills that aim to restrict what students are allowed to learn, read, and talk about in school. This onslaught of bills would essentially allow parents to monitor and influence the school curriculum and sue teachers and school districts for teaching topics that they personally object to.

In Florida, the state legislature passed its own Parents’ Bill of Rights over the summer, allowing parents to “direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health” of their children. More recently, however, a Florida House committee advanced another piece of legislation that would ban all discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom. Known as the Parental Rights in Education bill, or the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the proposed legislation would prohibit teachers from discussing LGBTQ topics that are not considered “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.” However, the bill fails to specify which topics and grade levels would be affected, leaving any mention of LGBTQ people, culture, and history open to scrutiny and legal action.

It’s not just Florida at the forefront of the current interaction of the parents’ rights movement, however. Much like Colorado’s 1996 ballot initiative, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has also proposed an amendment that would solidify parents’ rights into the Texas Constitution. The amendment would ensure that parents are “the primary decision makers in all matters involving their children” and expand their access to the school curriculum and educational materials. As a result, this has almost inevitably led to the revival of book banning and other forms of censorship, restricting what students are allowed to learn and what teachers are allowed to teach.

While there has always been a fringe group of Christian conservatives pushing for near-total control of the public school system, as evidenced in the lobby for parental rights in the 1990s, its most current iteration has moved into the mainstream. Although the movement has failed once before, it has since proved successful on a local level, delivering the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race to Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ran almost exclusively on a parents’ rights platform.

Where the crusade for parents’ rights goes from here is anyone’s guess, but one thing that’s for certain is that it’s not the ‘90s anymore. The advent of social media has changed the game, making it easier for people across the country to mobilize and take part in a shared cause. With Republicans pushing buttons and picking at the scabs of cultural grievances and white identity politics, however, this time will certainly be different, no matter the outcome.

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