Are National 'Parental Rights' Agendas Destroying Public Education? Here's What Parents Need to Know

'Parental Rights' groups are infiltrating school boards nationwide to create a rightwing agenda. That’s why voting in your local midterm elections is critical.

<p>C Glade | Getty	</p>

C Glade | Getty

A few weeks ago at my local cafe in the Chicago suburbs, I sat one table away from a man who was trying to convince his friend to run for the local school board. He explained that it was vital for people with “their beliefs,” which included taking back” the country'' and prioritizing “parental rights,” to have a seat on the board. This rhetoric aligns with that of politicians enforcing book bans, canceling sex-ed, and promoting "Don't Say Gay" bills. To these friends at the cafe, experience in education or budget strategy doesn't matter. What is important is the agenda.

Overhearing this conversation felt outrageous—as it should for all parents. Across the country, in red states and blue states, right-wing organizations and think tanks are strategizing how to disrupt the public education system. And it’s happening without any benefit to our kids in mind. It is vital that anyone who can vote pays attention not only to the major elections but to those happening at the school district level.

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School Boards Are Seeing A Divide in Agenda

At the most public level, book-bans have been sweeping the country. This push to change the face of the public education system through the systemic removal of books and lessons on topics like race, gender, sexuality, and social emotional learning (read: mental health awareness) are highly calculated. These bans are presented under the guise of the “parental rights” movement—one termed to sound empowering and inarguable, but an agenda that instead removes the rights of students to learn, discover, and explore. Organizations with ties to highly-visible members of the GOP, including the Florida-based Moms For Liberty, which launched in 2021, are working to change the landscape of public education.

Despite being successful in their campaigns for “parental rights” in states like Florida, where Moms for Liberty is based, these groups speak for a miniscule number of actual parents. What they call parental rights are an act of restricting the First Amendment Rights granted to all under the U.S. Bill of Rights.

Organizations like Moms For Liberty are now leveraging their political influence to teach their members how to run for school board positions.

The man at the cafe who I overheard had, of course, attended one of these training sessions. The cafe he sat in to spew his rhetoric about gender ideology, about the need to reform the system from the inside, is not only a queer-friendly space, but it is just up the road from UpRising Cafe. UpRising has been a target of hate against the queer community this year, including an act of vandalism by someone from outside the community riled up by similar discourse.

To draw the line between a hate crime, the work of groups like Moms For Liberty, and the upcoming sea change for public education is not hyperbolic. It is crucial to understand the true reality of what is going to happen in schools over the next few years.

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Board Elections Are Turning Into a Battleground

Public schools across the country generally elect members to their boards every other year. It differs by state, but usually, two to four seats are elected in one cycle, and two to four seats are elected in the next. That means in some elections, the board’s majority can overturn, so candidates who run as a block can make significant changes for the school districts in which they’re presiding.

In many municipalities, despite school boards being nonpartisan roles, politically aligned groups are pouring money into these elections. In Texas, groups like Patriot Mobile have made what were once low-budget ballot races into highly-competitive, expensive campaigns. And thanks to groups like Moms for Liberty, which boast over 100,000 members in 37 states, these school board elections have taken on a tenor unlike any seen before.

In many cases, candidates running have no interest or connection to public education. They are running to break the system from within. They speak about parental rights, with little to no discussion of the students who attend the schools.

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Parents Need to Vote Now

Public education belongs to the public. It is a choice parents make for their children with the knowledge that it will encourage students to think, to challenge their ideas, to engage with people who are entirely different from them, and to build them into competent, engaged citizens able to navigate an increasingly diverse world. Parents who disagree with this have always had the right to send their students to private schools, parochial schools, or homeschool. They have had the right to talk with their public school educators about the assignments they wish to keep their students from.

There is not, nor has there ever been, an issue of parental rights in public education.

Instead, we have a removal of the rights of students to learn, as well as the devaluing of the education profession. By pushing the “parental rights” agenda, these right-wing groups are undermining the credentials and experience of those who work hard to ensure that the next generation of thinkers are able to do just that: think.

And to them, this is why it is crucial school boards become tools of the political machine.

If you haven’t spent the time to get to know who is running for your local school board, the time to do that is now. Look up the individuals running, understand their agenda, and research what connections they have. Keywords like “parental rights” are red flags, and any school board candidate who suggests that removing material from the curriculum will encourage better learning outcomes are not only out of touch, but a danger to public education. Schools are not teaching gender ideology or critical race theory, but every school should be teaching social and emotional learning, a key component to helping students understand how to navigate the tricky work of being human.

Ensuring our kids' access to real education is critical, and that means taking action by voting in your local, state, federal elections, during the mid-terms and beyond.