Austin, Tex. – Discussion of parental rights in education are everywhere these days, but they all depend on which parents are being pandered to by politicians and educators. I was struck by this built-in hypocrisy while listening to yet another back-and-forth on the so-called culture wars last week.
A prime example emerged from Texas, where a new bill targeting parents of transgender children reveals a deeply cynical layer to the parental rights debate: instead of protecting parents, the bill aims to prosecute them.
It’s a far cry from promoting parental rights.
The latest bill out of Texas shows what’s really motivating conservative, largely white and straight politicians who have leapt on schools as cultural battlegrounds: They are taking advantage of a moment when angry parents are packing school board meetings with objections about what schools are teaching and which books are in their libraries as a way to further their own political ambitions and ideology.
They’ve been led by Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas, a Republican who is pushing to investigate and potentially prosecute parents of transgender children for child abuse.
The irony is not lost on students, teachers, librarians and parents themselves, and was the topic of a spirited panel at the sprawling education conference SXSW.edu in Austin last week.
“The parents [fighting to ban books] are saying we should have a right to determine what our children can read and what our kids can access on the shelf, but how can you say I deny the right to another parent who says my child does need this book?” George Johnson, author of the best-selling “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir of growing up Black and queer, said during a panel I attended at the conference. The activist’s book has been banned or challenged in about 20 states; one Florida school board member even filed a criminal complaint about the book’s presence in school libraries for violating obscenity laws.
The conference in Austin coincided with Florida’s passage of a “parental rights” bill last week, forbidding any teaching about sexual and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade. The bill gives parents the power to sue if they believe teachers go too far. Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will soon sign it, proclaimed: “This is where ‘woke’ goes to die.”
Tennessee has also advanced legislation that would ban public schools from using textbooks that “promote, normalize, support or address LGBT issues or lifestyles” in K-12 classrooms, while Iowa’s Republican governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill banning trans girls and women from participating in high school and college sports. Kansas Republicans introduced a bill that would make it a Class B misdemeanor to teach classroom materials on homosexuality.
But it’s the state of Texas where the new sharp turn toward restricting parent rights has revealed the hypocrisy of the fight and made clear the goal is only to support the rights of some parents – namely white, Christian conservative voters politicians hope will turn out in droves for mid-term elections.
“A library is a Democratic institution. We are providing materials that represent all our students helping students become good citizens of a global world. We have books for vegetarians and books for hunters.”Carolyn Foote, former librarian, head of FReadom Fighter
That was not lost on the crowd in Austin, where a raucous crowd cheered Carolyn Foote, a soft-spoken retired librarian who enlisted others in a social media campaign to push back against the state’s widespread book banning efforts last fall. Foote was outraged first by a list of the 850 books Texas Republican lawmaker Matt Krause wants to ban and grew more so more after Abbott insisted that education officials must investigate “criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography.”
How long can politicians like Abbott insist they are protecting parents by determining what books are on shelves and what their children can and cannot read in school while also pushing to prosecute them for addressing their children’s medical needs?
Abbott’s efforts have created plenty of pushback from LGBTQ advocates, businesses, the entertainment industry, students and even the White House. The College Board recently warned that high schools banning required topics could lose Advanced Placement classes.
Such hypocrisy is one reason why author Johnson told the crowd in Austin: “My life is now about preventing censorship in school,” and theorized that white politicians are taking extreme positions because they worry about demographic shifts that could put them in the minority by 2045.
Angry librarians, meanwhile, have joined Foote’s FReadom Fighters, a national social media campaign in support of intellectual freedom, spurred by “the urgency of the need to advocate for our students, for books on the shelves and for libraries and what they mean for our Democracy,” Foote said.
The movement is growing: it would not surprise me if Foote will soon be joined by the Mississippi principal fired last week for reading the children’s book “I Need a New Butt,” the story of a little boy who sets out to find a new one after discovering his has a huge crack.
Of course, hypocrisy goes both ways: it’s not just parents on the right trying to restrict access to reading materials for kids. Nationwide, the seventh-most challenged book in 2020 was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” according to the American Library Association, for “racial slurs and their negative effect on students, featuring a ‘white savior’ character, and its perception of the Black experience.” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” came in eighth for containing “racial slurs and racist stereotypes.”
The voice missing most in parental rights debates are those of students, along with teachers and parents who make more nuanced or less inflammatory arguments. One of the most enlightening moments of the conversation at SXSW.edu came when NBC News Correspondent Antonia Hylton and Senior Investigative Reporter Mike Hixenbaugh played excerpts from their powerful Southlake podcast, set in a Houston suburb that’s caught up in the critical race theory debate sweeping the U.S.
Southlake made international headlines after a school leader urged teachers to offer opposing perspectives about the Holocaust in classroom discussions. The resulting national outrage over the idea that there are two sides to the Holocaust didn’t stop Indiana lawmakers, where parents have protested loudly against any teaching of critical race theory, from authoring a bill that would have required teachers to remain impartial — even as they discussed Marxism, Nazism and fascism. It’s since been withdrawn.
“When we start denying the right to have access to certain books, we are saying these stories don’t exist…the library is the one place we can go to see out that truth My book is giving kids the resource to understand what they are going through.”George M. Johnson, author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue.’’
As these debates continue to rage, we must seek out student voices. The notion that legislators and parents know best does not always square with them. “Republican lawmakers have been echoing the idea that parents know what is best for their kids, not the schools,” Will Larkins, a high school student who led a walkout at Winter Park High in Florida, wrote in a recent op-ed. “Parents aren’t trained professionals; unlike schools, they aren’t made to follow a set of standards.”
And Johnson made it clear that students will easily find banned books on their own, as they always have. “Growing up I learned about Greek and Roman mythology,” he said. “There was rape. There was pedophilia. There was a whole lot of that we learned about just going through our school system.”
This story about parental rights was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.