Do Parents Have Rights?

School boards in the culture war: progressive advocates falsely cry wolf to thwart reform.

This essay originally appeared in American Greatness on October 31, 2021 (here). Thanks to Instapundit (here), Tennessee Conservative News (here), the SE Texas Record (here), Legal Insurrection (here), the Tennessee Star Report (here), and (here)!

An affluent suburb of Washington, D.C.–Loudoun County, Virginia–represents the contentious zeitgeist bedeviling the body politic. As I reported last year, the Loudoun County school board has become ground zero in an escalating culture war in which concerned parents oppose leftist indoctrination posing as curriculum. The latest salvo, launched in the heat of a dead-even gubernatorial race in Virginia, and in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s much-criticized memo suggesting that disgruntled parents opposing school boards pose a national security threat, is a Washington Post column with the provocative headline “Parents claim they have the right to shape their kids’ school curriculum. They don’t.”

The Washington Post is the local paper widely read in the populous Northern Virginia suburbs that often determine the outcome of statewide elections in the Old Dominion. The column was seemingly written to buttress the statement made by Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in a debate with his opponent, Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they teach.” McAuliffe’s statement, regarded by many as a gaffe—i.e., a controversial statement that inadvertently reveals the speaker’s true feelings—has been relentlessly exploited by Youngkin in the campaign, in the belief that Virginia parents are fed up with school boards pushing woke ideology. Youngkin counters that “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” 

Recent polling confirms that Virginians overall—and especially Republicans and Independents—favor a greater parental influence over school curriculum. (Among Democrats, however, a stunning 70 percent of those polled wanted school boards to have more influence on school curriculum than parents.) The only poll that matters, however, is the Virginia gubernatorial election on Tuesday, November 2. Voters will decide whether McAuliffe’s arrogant disdain for parents will carry the day. The Virginia governor’s race is important for reasons extending beyond the Commonwealth. First, it is seen by some observers as “a bellwether ahead of the 2022 midterms.” Democrats fear that public dissatisfaction with the struggling Biden administration may tip voter sentiment in favor of the GOP. A Youngkin victory could be a harbinger for Republicans regaining control of Congress in 2022, foiling liberal hegemony in the nation’s capital.

Former President Obama made a rare campaign appearance for McAuliffe, dismissing residents’ concerns about the teaching of critical race theory and school boards covering up transgender sex crimes with the statement “We don’t have time to be wasting on these phony, trumped-up culture wars, this fake outrage that right wing media’s pedals to juice their ratings.” Obama was not the only outsider to stump for McAuliffe. NBC reported that “Obama’s visit was one in a series of visits from national Democrats marching in to boost voter turnout and lift McAuliffe in the closing weeks. President Joe Biden will return to Virginia next week for his second event with McAuliffe. First lady Jill Biden, [and] former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams…are among those who have rallied or are scheduled to rally with McAuliffe.” Gubernatorial elections do not generally warrant such concentrated firepower.

Second, the November 2 election can be seen as a referendum on the larger issue of education reform. The partisan divide reflected in the campaign rhetoric and poll results in Virginia exemplifies the nationwide gulf between the education establishment (teachers’ unions, union-controlled school boards, and the uber-progressive colleges of education that train and credential public-school teachers and administrators) seeking greater control over school children and parents and taxpayers demanding accountability. This schism, not limited to Loudoun County or the gubernatorial contest in Virginia, is evident in state houses and school boards across the country. The education establishment would like to point to a McAuliffe win as evidence that public school accountability does not resonate in the electorate.

The Washington Post column should be read in that light. One of the authors, Jack Schneider, is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, and his co-author, Jennifer Berkshire, is a free-lance journalist who writes for the Nation, the New Republic, Salon, the Huffington Post, the Progressive, and other left-leaning publications. You get the drift. Together, in 2020 they wrote a book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, the thesis of which is that school choice, opposition to CRT, and other forms of parental empowerment constitute “The GOP’s Grievance Industrial Complex.” Berkshire has described concerned parents as “a posse of vigilantes.” According to their publisher, education reformis “a radical vision to unmake public education.”  Parents seeking accountability, the book contends, are “fixated on dismantling public education in the United States.” 

Their WaPo column risibly argues that spontaneous parental opposition to policies adopted by local school boards (numbering over 13,000—and typically elected by the voters) is part of an orchestrated, national conspiracy by conservatives seeking to “deliver Congress in 2022.” This “frenzy” for parental rights, Schneider and Berkshire claim, is a “radical” assertion of “parental powers that have never previously existed.” Seriously? Parents have no right to determine what their children are taught? The WaPo column concedes that parents should be permitted some influence, but not if it conflicts with the state’s judgment regarding what is necessary “to prepare young people to think for themselves.” As evidence for this dubious proposition, Schneider and Berkshire cite state regulation of home schooling, and claim that Supreme Court precedents such as Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) authorize measures deemed necessary for “the public welfare.” 

This flimsy argument does not withstand scrutiny. The regulation of home schooling (and compulsory education laws generally) do not confer on the state carte blanche authority over school-age children. Home schooling is required to meet certain minimum standards but is not subject to micro-management of curriculum or teaching methods. Yoder allowed Amish parents to withdraw their children from public school after the eighth grade for religious reasons. The Court rejected the state’s claim that further compulsory education was warranted. Pierce overturned a state law mandating attendance at public schools only (in effect banning private schools or home schooling), ruling that the law “unreasonably interferes with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control,” adding that “The child is not the mere creature of the State.” The Court in Pierce cited Meyer v. Nebraska (1923), which held that a state law forbidding the teaching of any language other than English was unconstitutional because “the right of parents to engage [a teacher of German] so to instruct their children” is protected by the 14th Amendment.

Schneider and Berkshire are plainly wrong to contend that parents have no rights to control their children’s education. Such rights are fundamental and well-established. Engaging in projection, Schneider and Berkshire accuse concerned parents of engaging in the “paranoid style” of politics, going so far as to claim that objections to CRT (which they absurdly deny is being taught in K-12 schools) are motivated by “White racial grievance.” Resorting to wild exaggeration, they accuse reformers of “bringing napalm to the fight” and harboring “conspiratorial fantasies.” They conclude with this ultimatum: Parents unhappy with the current agenda of teachers’ unions and woke education vendors “can opt out of the public system if they wish, and pay to send their children to private or religious schools.” Reforming the schools funded with their tax dollars is not an option. Parents unable (or unwilling) to pay private school tuition must simply surrender their children to the far-left leadership of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

The authors of A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door are apologists for and defenders of the public education establishment that (in the words of the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Riley) is “owned and operated by Democrats and the teachers’ unions that finance their political campaigns.”  They are cynically crying wolf—desperately attempting to prop up “their” candidate, Terry McAuliffe. The question is, will Virginia’s disgruntled parents fall for this gambit or express their dissatisfaction at the voter booth on November 2. Stay tuned.   

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