April 8, 2023

Laura Gambino: ‘Parents’ rights’: Republicans wage education culture war as 2024 looms

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Reporting for The Guardian, Lauren Gambino explains how the rise of “parental rights” bills is one more part of a hard right panic over loss of power in the US.

With the 2024 election cycle looming, Republicans are leaning into the education culture wars, championing policies that they say will give parents more of a say in their children’s education, from the subjects they are taught to the books they read, with hopes of appealing to suburban voters who recoiled from the party during the Trump years. In their telling, Republicans are the defenders of America’s schoolchildren whose education is threatened by a leftwing ideology that promotes activism, racial history and gender fluidity over academic outcomes.

But critics and many educators say conservatives are using the term “parents’ rights” as a guise to advance a rightwing education agenda that undermines public schools, whitewashes American history and marginalizes LGBTQ+ students.

The debate took center stage in the House this week, where Republicans broke into cheers after narrowly advancing their “Parents Bill of Rights”. Friday’s vote followed a contentious 16-hour committee hearing and a bitter floor debate over the legislation, whose sponsor argued would “bring more transparency and accountability to education” and whose opponents derisively rebranded the “politics over parents act”.

Democrats argued that the bill would only serve to embolden a far-right movement that has pushed book bans, restrictions on the instruction of American history and turned classrooms into “ground zero” for conservative culture wars.

“This legislation has nothing to do with parental involvement,” said Hakeem Jeffries, the Democratic House minority leader. “It has everything to do with jamming the extreme Maga Republican ideology down the throats of the children and the parents of the United States of America.”

Though the legislation has little chance of advancing in the Democratic-controlled Senate, it will serve as a rallying cry for Republicans on the campaign trail.

The origins of the “parents’ rights” movement, experts say, can be traced back to the 1925 “trial of the century” in which a Tennessee biology teacher was fined for teaching evolution in violation of state law. The term has been invoked repeatedly in the decades since, notably in clashes related to desegregationthe red scare, sex education and homeschooling.

“The idea of parents’ rights is really nothing new in American politics,” said Melissa Deckman, the CEO of the non-partisan Public Religion Research Institute who has written extensively about culture war battles in education.

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