How to Fight the Right’s Moral Panic Over Parental Rights

How to Fight the Right’s Moral Panic Over Parental Rights

How to Fight the Right’s Moral Panic Over Parental Rights

How the right’s school-themed extremism has triggered a nationwide backlash.

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Karin Cevasco was keeping a wary eye on the voting returns. For months ahead of this spring’s election, the school board of the southern New Hampshire town of Milford had been the site of intense acrimony. Conservative parents pushed to remove a gay-themed memoir from school libraries and demanded that bathrooms and locker rooms be segregated by sex, not gender identity, all in the name of parental rights. After the school board, dominated by conservatives, banned some students in the town’s middle and high schools from using urinals or shared spaces in locker rooms, more than 100 students walked out in protest.

Now local voters had a chance to turn the tide. For months, Cevasco, the mother of two children in the Milford schools, had been organizing parents and community members to fight back. What started as a lonely effort by a handful of parents was ballooning. When Cevasco put together an event to show support for the district’s LGBTQ students last fall, parents came from all over the state to participate. And in the run-up to the election, Cevasco and other parents spent weeks organizing and canvassing, trying to translate the backlash against the school board’s controversial policies into votes.

It worked. Voters turned out in robust numbers for an election that had been pushed back for two weeks because of a blizzard, selecting an incumbent and a newcomer who’d run on the need for safe, affirming schools for all kids. More important, says Cevasco, voters said “no thanks” to a former GOP state senator and member of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council who’d sought to cement the board’s conservative direction. “This was really a statement by our voters about the kind of schools and community we want,” Cevasco says.

After the town moderator announced the results of the vote, the conservative board members, who’d been huddled together in the Milford High School gym, slunk out. The scene was an apt metaphor for the state of the right’s wide-ranging bid to wage a school culture war for political gain. Instead of luring disaffected suburban voters back into the GOP fold, the increasingly extreme rhetoric about schools, teachers, and even kids appears to be having the opposite effect. An issue that was supposed to usher in a political realignment is not just falling flat beyond the GOP base—it’s galvanizing opposition. Now, as Republicans double down on their incendiary claims about schools, Democrats and progressives have an opportunity to turn the issue against them, winning over a key voting bloc in the process.

Stoking fears about the imperiled parental control of children has been second nature on the American right for more than a century. The first time parental rights emerged as a rallying cry was in response to the Progressive Era effort to ban child labor. Conservative industry groups tapped into parents’ unease over what they saw as state encroachment into the private realm of the family. Variations on this theme would play out again and again over the decades, always fueled by the same combustible mix of political opportunism and parental anxiety about the pace of social and cultural change. In the 1970s, the newly created Heritage Foundation would rush to West Virginia to fan the flames of a battle over textbooks, again warning parents about indoctrination in the schools (secular humanism! cannibalism!) to spur alarm over liberal-minded education. In the 1990s, the GOP included a parental rights plank in its Contract With America, and Patrick Buchanan promised that he would be the president of the parents.

We owe the most recent reappearance of the cause to the Covid-19 pandemic and the profound disruptions to the domestic order of the country wrought by school closures. But the marquee struggle in the current parental rights moment began in earnest on September 28, 2021. That was when the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, discussed the appropriate role of parents in schools during a debate. “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision,” McAuliffe said—a remark that now feels prescient, however ill-advised it seemed to political strategists at the time. His opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin, quickly seized on what many considered a blunder in McAuliffe’s campaign messaging.

The exchange and its aftermath quickly became the stuff of legend. Parental anger—over school closures, Covid mitigation, and the alleged excesses of “woke” curriculums in the public schools—had fueled Youngkin’s upset win, went the story. The same constellation of issues was now poised to power a “red wave” in the 2022 midterms, the likes of which the land had never seen.

Lost in the fog of myth was McAuliffe’s unique awfulness as a candidate. His dogged efforts to nationalize the election by painting Youngkin as Virginia’s version of Donald Trump never caught on with voters who were as tired of Trump as they were of McAuliffe himself. Lost, too, was Youngkin’s more complicated appeal to parents. Yes, he milked the right’s growing obsession with critical race theory and warned on the stump that George Soros had inserted political operatives onto local school boards. But to affluent suburban voters, he hammered home a different message: that Virginia’s elite magnet high school, a pipeline to the Ivies, had lowered its standards, something he would reverse. For good measure, Youngkin threw in a pledge to make the biggest investment in education in Virginia’s history.

The result, as Youngkin’s campaign advisers pointed out, was an unlikely coalition of voters. “Having school-choice people in the same room with a CRT person with an advanced math [person] along with people who want school resource officers in every school—that’s a pretty eclectic group of people,” Youngkin strategist Jeff Roe told Politico.

There were plenty of signs to suggest that the right was misreading Youngkin’s victory. In the run-up to the midterms, the Republican National Committee released a polling memo that warned against overplaying alarmist messaging on the schools. It wasn’t enough to focus on the “radical agenda Democrats have for K-12,” the pollsters argued. “Republicans must create compassion” and “reach out to a broader coalition.” The poll echoed an earlier national survey, conducted by the conservative, free-market Club for Growth, which determined that the attacks on critical race theory appealed to few voters outside the hard-core GOP base and warned that anti-teacher messaging was dangerously unpopular.

Whatever more nuanced lessons there were to be mined from Youngkin’s campaign went unheeded by Republicans amid a confident new consensus on the right that parental anxiety was a bankable ticket to power. “There is a huge red wave coming,” declared Missouri state Representative Brian Seitz in January 2022. A pastor and a businessman, Seitz was leading the charge to “shut down” critical race theory in Missouri. “Virginia is just a microcosm of the rest of the United States,” Seitz said. As the midterms approached, the belief that bipartisan parental anger would power a red wave only grew more certain. “The great education reset is under way,” opined the conservative pundit Hugh Hewitt, predicting an earthquake in school board elections, not to mention a painful reckoning for complacent Democrats.

But on the campaign trail, it was getting harder to discern precisely what GOP candidates meant when they positioned themselves as guardians of parental rights. In Pennsylvania, gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano pledged to rid elementary schools of graphic porn. In Michigan, Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon accused teachers of “grooming” kids, while Matthew DePerno, running to become state attorney general, warned that public schools wanted to indoctrinate young Michiganders and teach them “to hate God, hate their country, and hate their parents.” In New Hampshire, GOP Senate candidate Don Bolduc told supporters that schools were installing litter boxes for kids who identify as cats. “I wish I was making it up,” Bolduc told the crowd. (Spoiler alert: He was.)

The media takeaway from the midterms was that playing up the school culture wars had produced mixed results for Republicans. While there had been no red wave, parental rights had powered Ron DeSantis’s return to the Florida governor’s mansion.

Yet most election postmortems failed to capture just how much of a flop the cause turned out to be. According to the National Education Association, pro-public-education candidates won in many competitive gubernatorial races, including in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, as well as in 71 percent of the school board races the union was tracking throughout the country. In California, where the state GOP was pinning its hopes for a return to relevance on school board takeovers, conservative school board candidates lost in most of their races. Even in Virginia, parental rights failed to animate voters. In a special election in Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District, Republican Leon Benjamin, a pastor who embraced Youngkin’s message, lost by a margin of roughly 3 to 1. For months, Republicans had argued that emphasizing parental rights would lure back moderate suburbanites. Instead, the GOP candidates’ growing embrace of fringe cultural issues likely repelled them.

In Michigan and other key swing states, “the extreme language fell really flat,” says Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, which represents about 120,000 teachers, education support professionals, and higher-education employees. She points to a special election in western Michigan last spring for a seat that had previously only ever been held by a Republican. Former teacher Carol Glanville upset the GOP candidate—a parental rights advocate who wanted to abolish the state’s compulsory education law.

Last year, the union endorsed candidates in more than 300 school board elections, and more than 75 percent of them went on to win. The strategy of challenging extremist candidates who ran on banning books and other extreme positions paid off beyond the local level, Herbart says. “We knew that if we could get people out for school board, they’d vote for public education candidates up and down the ballot.”

Tudor Dixon, who campaigned on ridding schools of porn and transgender athletes, ended up losing to the incumbent governor, Gretchen Whitmer, by nearly 11 points. Instead of a parent-powered red wave, Michigan saw the opposite: a Democratic sweep that put the party in control of the governorship and both legislative chambers for the first time in 40 years.

Three decades ago, parental rights appeared poised to remake the educational landscape, upending electoral politics in the process. A coalition of conservative groups, including one headed by Betsy DeVos, sought to amend every state constitution to keep the government from interfering in how parents educate and raise their children. Advocates found a receptive audience among influential pundits, who cheered what struck them as a populist rebellion against state overreach.

But that 1990s effort also fizzled as voters began to understand what parental rights really meant. Then, as now, the crusade came to be seen as a stalking horse for a larger, far less popular project: dismantling public education. And the more voters saw the cause as empowering a small minority of conservative parents to limit what kids in schools could learn or talk about—or worse, making vulnerable kids more vulnerable—the less they liked it. In Colorado, where advocates put a parental rights amendment on the ballot in 1996, voters rejected the measure by nearly 60 percent, a precipitous decline for a question that had started out polling at close to 80 percent in favor. The collapse of the Colorado initiative marked the beginning of the end for that iteration of the parental rights crusade. The more the debate shifted to what conservative parents’ groups wanted to ban, the less potent the political issue became.

A similar trajectory appears to be under way today. While polls show strong backing for giving parents greater influence over their kids’ curriculums, the support nosedives when that translates into narrowing the scope of instruction or banning books. In a recent Navigator poll assessing voter opinions on House Republicans, the respondents—and notably independent voters—expressed deep concern over GOP bans on teaching accurate history in public schools. According to the survey, voters are nearly as fearful of such policies as they are of cuts to Social Security and Medicare—and more fearful than they were over a national ban on abortion. Other opinion surveys indicate that book banning is broadly unpopular. A poll conducted last winter by CBS News/YouGov found that more than 8 in 10 Americans reject the banning of books about history or race from schools—opposition that crosses party lines. Nor is there much support for banning books that discuss sexuality: A survey from the EveryLibrary Institute found that just a third of voters back such bans.

The Parents Bill of Rights Act passed by House Republicans this spring was intended to be a centerpiece of the party’s agenda, not to mention a source of endless attack ads against Democrats who voted against it. Instead, GOP leaders rushed to distance the bill from the growing right-wing push to ban books. Virginia Foxx, chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee, pointed out that the bill, which includes a new federal requirement that parents receive a list of every book on offer in the school library and be notified regarding the bathrooms used by transgender students, didn’t actually say anything about banning books. The legislation, her colleague Chip Roy from Texas insisted, “just ensure[s] that parents know what’s in the libraries and what’s in the curriculum. It does nothing more.”

For Republican culture war candidates, the electoral math is increasingly unforgiving. Even as their rhetoric alienates voters beyond the GOP base, the coalitions of groups aligning against them are expanding. In elections this April, school board candidates who focused on critical race theory and transgender students largely flamed out in Illinois and the key battleground state of Wisconsin. Organizers in these states credited their recent wins to success in mobilizing the local Democratic Party, teachers’ unions, and community groups on behalf of candidates who embraced pro-public-education messages and talked about the need to keep all students safe.

In suburban Elmhurst, Ill., a broad array of groups united in opposition to conservative school board candidates, who had cycled through a shifting litany of complaints about the local schools, beginning with masks and the teaching of critical race theory, then Marxist indoctrination, before finally settling on property taxes and declining test scores. Members of several parents’ groups, including special education parents, as well as local LGBTQ advocates and the teachers’ union, united to support four candidates who pledged to address the well-being of students in areas beyond test scores. They won decisively.

“That holistic vision appealed to a lot of people,” says Elizabeth Collins, who helps lead a group of local parents and community members advocating for a more inclusive approach to public education. “It’s really inspiring when you have all of these different groups coming together to say, ‘This is the Elmhurst I want.’”

In New Hampshire, candidates who ran on censoring history, dismantling public education, and targeting LGBTQ students and families have gone down to defeat in the last two school board election cycles. This spring, progressive public school advocates once again swept local elections, continuing a trend that began in 2022. In the once reliable Republican stronghold of Wolfeboro, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to prohibit the use of town funds to ban books from the local library. And in the conservative community of Brentwood, voters rejected a candidate who’d railed against critical race theory and repeatedly charged a local elementary school with “sexualizing” kids. It was her fourth successive defeat. “Unfortunately, Brentwood has turned ‘blue,’” the candidate told her supporters.

“These are deep-red, wealthy communities,” says Sarah Robinson, the education justice campaign director for Granite State Progress and a member of the school board in Concord. “And what you’re seeing is that folks are showing up to say, ‘This is not us.’”

In March, a parental bill of rights stalled in the New Hampshire Legislature over concerns that requiring teachers to disclose information about student pronoun use could put gay and transgender kids in danger. That concern was not assuaged when a GOP representative, speaking in favor of the bill, seemed to imply that students who feared a violent reaction from parents were exaggerating. After the bill failed, a prominent Republican expressed frustration that so few New Hampshire parents had shown up to support it. (A similar bill came up for a vote in May, only to die again.)

“They’re calling it ‘parental rights,’ but what it really means is control for a certain set of parents to be able to harass school staff and impinge on kids’ rights,” says Linds Jakows, cofounder of the LGBTQ rights group 603 Equality. “The silver lining is that we have so many more parents on our side who see this for what it is: a strategic attempt to divide parents, teachers, and students and undermine the protections that public schools provide.”

New Hampshire has been steadily turning blue in recent years, a shift driven in part by the backlash against the right’s extreme culture war agenda. “Basically, what the right has tried to do is completely backfiring,” Robinson says.

In 2021, the progressive grassroots women’s group Red Wine and Blue was suddenly fielding urgent calls from all over the country. Women in Ohio, Michigan, Texas, and North Carolina all had the same question: What is happening at my school board? The stories were remarkably similar: Well-organized groups, often with no connection to the local community, were descending on school board meetings. “People were describing the same messages, the same tactics,” recalls Katie Paris, who founded the group in 2019.

Red Wine and Blue launched a series of Troublemakers Trainings to help instruct suburban moms on how to teach their friends and neighbors to fight back. And even as Republicans broadcast their intent to use the school wars to win back suburban voters, Paris and her colleagues were convinced the strategy would fall flat. “You’re going to claw back suburban moms by scaring them? How dumb do you think we are? That lit the fire,” Paris says.

While Republican candidates leaned into increasingly incendiary claims about local schools or pushed to have taxpayers pay for private religious schools, Red Wine and Blue members had completely different priorities. They stressed issues of safety, especially in the wake of high-profile school shootings, as well as adequate school funding and support for students and teachers who are still struggling to recover from the pandemic. This stark disconnect helped propel suburban voters to vote for Democrats in the midterms, Paris argues.

Two years after parental rights emerged as the name-brand conservative cause sure to unleash a nationwide red wave, Paris says, the political landscape has completely shifted. For one thing, Red Wine and Blue is just one of many groups helping communities respond to extremist attacks on kids, teachers, and schools. And there is increasing recognition of the stakes in these battles, she continues. “People recognize that this isn’t just some fringe political movement but an effort to undermine public education, which is a pillar of our democracy.”

Meanwhile, the GOP is doubling down on educational extremism. Mike Pence is running ads in Iowa that target the gender identity policy of a small school district. Ron DeSantis, whose name is increasingly synonymous with book banning in the state he governs, recently got the Florida Board of Education to expand his controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, which formerly applied to kids in the third grade and below, to all grades. And Donald Trump has added a line about “pink-haired communists teaching our kids” to his stump speech.

With the 2024 contest likely to hinge once again on suburban voters, the GOP’s lockstep embrace of culture war crusades that fail to resonate beyond a shrinking base is an opportunity for Democrats. But if Republicans learned the wrong lesson from Youngkin’s victory, so, too, did Democrats, who’ve been slow to push back forcefully against the right’s parental rights rhetoric or have adopted a “lite” version of it, as Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona sought to do in a recent interview. Democrats aren’t helped, of course, by the decades-long support that party leaders have voiced for school privatization in the name of innovation and student achievement. Now, as Republicans beat the drum for school vouchers, national Democrats often struggle to articulate how their particular brand of school choice is any different.

The answer to the Democrats’ messaging woes on education can be found in communities where grassroots coalitions are effectively countering right-wing extremism, making the case that public schools are essential democratic institutions. That’s a winning recipe, says Paris, one that risk-averse Democrats are ignoring at their peril: “Democrats should seize on the fact that the GOP’s messaging is backfiring, and in the process protect kids, public education, and democracy. I hope they wake up!”

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