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Collage by Joel Nihlean

Guest Post: The Fight Over Parents’ Rights in Schools Misses the Point of Public Education

Teach the Vote
Teach the Vote

Privatization | Vouchers

Date Posted: 2/01/2023 | Author: Joel Nihlean

The current breathless and apoplectic fury over parents’ rights is deeply familiar. In the vitriol spewed at school board meetings and the talking points dripping from the mouths of TV’s talking heads are unmistakable echoes and rhymes from America’s not too distant past.

The contemporary pushback carried out under the banner of parents’ rights centers on a range of hot-button culture war issues, from vaccines and mask mandates to book bans and LGBTQ+ inclusion policies — and, of course, the boogeymen of critical race theory and social-emotional learning. But the parental rights movement has deep roots. It was born out of a perceived secularization of schools and the white backlash to the desegregation movement.

This doesn’t mean that the parents leading the charge at school board meetings today have hoods and robes in their closets, but there is a clear connective thread in these movements.

After Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, white families who didn’t agree with the way the public was moving began to disengage with the idea of a public. In the generations since, the project has been to create a parallel public — separate but equal — that could still benefit from public money without needing to engage with groups they found undesirable.

Public schools can be places that strengthen the social and political fabric of this nation — and you can see a lot of that happening every day in classrooms around the country — or it can just as easily go the other way. We’re at a crossroads.

Is public education a public good?

The decisions about what we should teach kids and how we should teach it — who determines what’s best for students and for the public good — is a perennial debate. It is, in fact, older than the nation itself. But the idea that parents’ rights reign supreme is a relatively recent development.

Looking back to the colonial era and the early Republic — -as our country worked out if there should be public education and what it would look like — schooling was nearly always described in the context of how it relates to governance and citizenship. There was an inherent and unquestioned connection between public schools and the public good.

“Public school is meant to create capable citizens who possess the practical skills necessary to participate in democracy.”

Public education was understood to be for the maintenance and well-being of our collective community — for the struggle to create a more perfect union. There was never a question about parents’ role in schools, or to what extent parents would contribute to this larger initiative.

But our understanding has changed. Those heading the modern parents’ rights movement seem to want the unprecedented and exclusive right to walk in a school, righteously demand answers, and then make policy decisions for all kids. We’ve somehow lost that thread of public schools being for the public good.

A quick overview of how the purpose of public education has changed over time

Schools in the U.S. have long served multiple aims that are, at times, at odds with one another. Education historian David F. Labaree took an incredibly detailed look at this in his essay, “Public Goods, Private Goods: The American Struggle over Educational Goals.

He says that there are three main, competing goals that have evolved in American public education:

Democratic equality

This is ostensibly the founding goal of public education. It’s what animated the common school movement and its proponents like Horace Mann in the early 19th century.

Public school is meant to create capable citizens who possess the practical skills necessary to participate in democracy. To have a nation of relatively equal stakeholders — and there’s a massive caveat here since slavery was an integral part of the U.S. economy at the time — all children need to be properly prepared to take on the responsibilities of self-governance.

In short, if we value democratic equality — the idea is that if we’re going to be ruled by the majority — the country should make sure that the majority knows what it’s doing.

But this vision of public schools went further. They were not just a place for preparing young people to participate in American life. They also served this aim of bringing children together as a kind of good in its own right. The experience of public education in the 19th century and early 20th century was meant to be a common touchstone for all.

Social Efficiency

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the idea emerged that the benefits of education should return a measurable value to taxpayers. We want to have not only informed citizens but productive members of society.

So, in addition to the lens of citizenship, social efficiency has us also view public education as taxpayers. The idea is to get the most effective public good we can get at the lowest cost we can get it at.

When students leave school and enter the workforce, we want an efficient allocation of people’s skills that they’ve acquired and talents they’ve uncovered over the course of their education. This is when we start to see tracking.

Cast in its best light, tracking is the idea that school plays a role in sorting students by their skills and talents — slotting them where those skills and talents are needed in society.

Again, we want to be skeptical about this one. We know that low-income and racially minoritized kids are the ones who most often get tracked for low-income occupations and lesser futures.

Social Mobility

By the mid 20th century, a third goal was articulated. And this is the one that’s most pertinent to understanding the parents’ rights and “school choice” movements of today.

Whereas the previous two goals provided a broad benefit to society by creating capable citizens with the practical skills necessary to navigate the political and economic arenas of the country, this new educational goal is exclusively for the benefit of private individuals seeking their self-interest.

In this aim, people saw school primarily as a way to get ahead socially and economically — advancing individual interests like a higher salary or better social standing.

This commodification of public education gets picked up by libertarians and market-oriented conservatives. They look at schools not as a mechanism for advancing any collective or public good, but exclusively as a way of advancing individuals, a private good.

How public education went from public good to private commodity

What started in the 1950s as an explicit racial backlash, with protesters waving “White Rights” and “Race Mixing is Communism” placards, unsurprisingly didn’t gain long-term traction. Over time, the movement went undercover. But it never disappeared.

At the time, just attempting to break down the barriers that have historically denied people equal access to public education — just trying to expand the idea of who is part of the public — drove this angry minority to claim that their individual and inalienable rights have been violated.


Protesters in 1959 declare that “race mixing” (or school integration) is “communism.” Source: Library of Congress

They point to the constitutional right to the freedom of association, claiming integration forced them to associate with people they would not otherwise. They claimed the government didn’t have the power to tell them to go to an integrated school. And they go further. They reinterpret this as a right to go to school that must be protected by the preservation of segregation.

“Ideologically, there is no public anymore, at least not one that these people want to belong to — only one they want to engage in a culture war with.”

At the same time, the Cold War was heating up. Desegregation and the backlash were happening against the backdrop of nuclear testing, Joseph McCarthy, and the Cuban revolution bringing the Red Scare to America’s doorstep. The response to the cultural milieu of the moment is a free market fever. Part of the pitched patriotic fervor is an embrace of market logic — the logic of capitalism versus communism.

In subsequent decades, the movement came back to the national spotlight draped in the respectability of the language of markets and choice. This transformation — the adoption of dog whistles and oblique language that cloaks the real ends — is essential to the success of this movement going forward.

That vocal and angry minority that first reared its head during desegregation gives birth to the school privatization movement, or school choice as they prefer to call it. And the country went along with it. We built up an entire legal edifice and rhetorical structure — a market logic focused on the primacy of the individual — to accommodate parents who no longer wanted to be part of the public.


Protesters in 2021 declare that “critical race theory” (or teaching that institutional racism exists) is “Marxism.” Photo by Dan Gleiter.

We no longer had a movement that was explicitly about people’s idiosyncratic, racist, or extremist personal worldviews. Now it was —wink, wink — merely about proposing more effective ways of organizing and governing schools.

It’s only after the ideological roots of free-market reform weave themselves around public education that these activists start coming out and talking in more overt terms about the things that they’re actually interested in.

As it turns out, they tend not to be interested in market theory. Instead, they are interested in things like pursuing their own extremist beliefs and acting out their views about race. Ideologically, there is no public anymore, at least not one that these people want to belong to — only one they want to engage in a culture war with. Without a public, there is no public good. To them, education cannot be anything but a commodity.

This is all the prologue of the current so-called parents’ rights movement, the critical race theory battles, book bans, and the anti-LGBTQ+ pushes we’re seeing in school districts across the country.

How do we get back to some sense of public?

What’s missing from all the white-hot rhetoric about individual parents’ rights that we’re seeing right now is that there’s no talk of education as a public good. The purpose of public education has been lost, distorted, and repackaged for these angry parents as a personal commodity for their children.

This is embedded in the way we talk about school quality, in the way we measure school quality, in the way that we try to hold schools accountable. Everyone just wants a quick number on a report card so we know where to buy a house. We measure success by high-stakes standardized tests that support a meritocratic vision of schools as sorting devices that open up social and economic advantages for an aristocracy of talent.

If we truly believe that public education provides value to all of us — that it’s a public good — then we need to figure out how to talk about the public goods that schools produce. Things aren’t going to get any better as long as our conversations revolve narrowly around this vision of school as an institution that exclusively returns value to individuals who then use that value to try to get ahead or compete with each other in the market.

At the same time, we have to admit that public schools can do better. They have to do better. These are still problematic spaces, but they are not irredeemable by any means.

Even while acknowledging that the systems themselves are flawed, it’s a tough argument to make right now when the voices arguing in favor of a completely privatized model of schooling are so loudly insistent. They’re backed by a well-oiled, well-funded, and highly organized machine that wants to dismantle public education. Right now, those who are making the argument to privatize schools or that funding should follow the individual students and individual families have the upper hand.

We need to listen to those who are going to their local public schools and who are invested in them — students who are raising their voices as the most important stakeholders of all in education. We need to listen to teachers and teacher unions who refuse to give up on the public school model. We need to listen to educators and education leaders who dedicate their lives to public school despite long hours and low pay.

There are people who understand the value in public education. They know what works. People aren’t listening to them, and they’re choosing not to invest in them.

"The Fight Over Parents’ Rights in Schools Misses the Point of Public Education" originally appeared at https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/the-fight-over-parents-rights-in-schools-misses-the-point-of-public-education-3640888bf744



Linda Tabor

Public education is offered through local school districts. It is offered free of charge. It is established so that all children may get an education. By that, they may gain learning and practice in subjects offered, as well as physical education to maintain health, and extra-curricular activities of choice. Parents have a right to know what is being taught, how things are going in the classroom (parent conferences and classroom observation in the classroom or through volunteer work at the school). The community of the district can attend board meetings to observe, or make a presentation if their subject is on the agenda, thereby giving input to the board. School boards must comply with state board and state/federal laws pertaining to children and education. Parents should be responsible and accountable for their children, including teaching them their religious, and social behaviors, not the public school. Individual adults should obey the local, state, and federal laws when it comes to communicating opinions and requests to the local school board, SBOE, or State education agency. If the public school and community do not agree with them, they have the choice to pay for private school or relocate to a different district or state. State education funds need to support the free public education such that it is successful, not private schools.

C.J Faulkner

This article is framed as the anti- critical race theory movement being some white based hate group, while there are a lot of African -American and Hispanics who don''t want marxist ideologies taught in schools. It is well documented and espoused by many former Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian expatriates that these ideologies are identical to the ones that pushed their murderous regimes into place. I agree that debate needs to take place, but it cannot be one-sided and marked by name calling and race-baiting . This surely is Fascism in true form if you allow only one side to be analyzed and studied for its core beliefs.

Laurie Thomas

My big question here is, “Who gets to decide what’s in the public good?” Does the “public” get to have any input into how and what its children are taught?

Janet Godfrey

This is an article I plan to share with my local school board. Very thoughtful and many of my own thoughts.

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