The question of who should call the shots when it comes to children’s upbringing—parents or the state—has simmered for nearly 500 years, since Massachusetts enacted the first education law in the colonies. But when the debate flared anew in the 1990s, it was spurred by a rising religious right and a conservative movement that sought to meld the fury of the culture wars with anti-government sentiment. The precipitating events occurred in 1993, when parents in New York City successfully ousted the chief of the city’s schools over a plan to distribute condoms to elementary schoolers and to adopt the so-called Rainbow Curriculum, which featured books such as Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. These outrages resembled others across the country. Conservatives were incensed by their conviction that public schools were teaching “secular humanism,” the precursor to today’s critical race theory. Wherever they looked, they saw evidence that the traditional family was under siege. And while many of their specific demands were old—to ban books, allow prayer in schools, and institute school vouchers—the movement coursed with new energy.
“The parents’ revolt is under way,” wrote Bill Kristol and Jay Lefkowitz in 1993, warning that parents would soon prove as great a threat to the liberal establishment as had the anti-tax backlash of the 1970s. Indeed, the furor was an extension of that earlier movement, the writers argued: “It builds on and deepens a populist rebellion against the liberal bureaucratic state.”
That the White House was occupied at the time by a family named Clinton no doubt also fueled the cause. Heath Brown, a professor of public policy at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State, argued that the emergence of parental rights as an animating issue in the 1990s can be traced to antipathy toward the Clintons. “It’s not a coincidence,” he suggested, “that you see parental rights emerging at the same time that the conservative movement is starting to target Hillary.” Mining a law article on children’s rights that Hillary Clinton had written 20 years earlier while teaching law at the University of Arkansas, conservatives found all the proof they needed of a liberal plot to undermine the family. Pat Buchanan summed up the charge in his 1992 GOP convention speech: “Hillary believes that 12-year-olds have a right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery—and life on an Indian reservation.”
If liberals wanted to replace the family with the government equivalent of a “village,” then conservatives had a neat solution: fight back by strengthening parental rights. As the commentator Thomas Edsall opined in The Washington Post, parental rights were the conservative’s answer to the Equal Rights Amendment. Armed with a powerful new legal weapon, parents would be able to take on “the cultural and sexual liberalism of the education and government establishment.”