A mother of four in Florida recently questioned the repeated defense of “parent rights” that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cited before signing his controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill, known as the “Don’t Say Gay bill,” at the end of March.
“ ‘Parental rights’? Whose parental rights? Only parental rights if you’re raising a child according to DeSantis?” asked the parent, voicing a sentiment shared by many families nationwide, with bills like Florida’s and policies like Virginia’s “divisive practices” tip line leaving them fed up with the Republican-led wave of what they consider anti-parentlegislation.
In the past year, a culture war has taken over education. An area that deeply resonates with us all, education has become a perfect ideological battleground.
Yet, when the current attacks on education are framed as a legitimate debate about policies that impact all parents similarly, it creates a narrative that all parents feel the same and promotes the illusion that the attacks’ intent is to ensure that all voices will be heard equally in the school system.
As a parent, and a former teacher and student, in the nation’s largest school district, that assumption of pursued equality deeply disturbs me — because it is simply not true.
With so much talk about parental rights, do those doing the talking ever stop and ask whose rights are actually in question?
We cannot separate the conversation about parental rights from the one about the impact that racial and socioeconomic identity has on parents’ experiences with the education system.
When advocates and politicians talk about “parents” they are usually referring to a very specific group. As the latest Ipsos polling suggests, unlike Republican culture war legislators, most parents feel that schools do a “good job” keeping them informed about the curriculum; less than a quarter say that they have too little say about it.
When House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy states in his Parents Bill of Rights that “parents” are “fed up with a system led by activists who want to use America’s classrooms as a breeding ground to promote their liberal agenda, all while they neglect the real academic needs of our students,” he is using a right-wing dog whistle to communicate to certain constituents that their power is being taken away.
Such messages and the legislation that accompanies them are not written with Black and Latino and Indigenous families in mind. If they were, we’d see new laws supporting Black parents taking legal action against schools that do not teach Black history accurately or that discipline Black children at much higher and harsher rates than white children; or we’d see laws supporting Indigenous families in demanding that schools teach truthfully about the long-term impacts of genocide and residential schools.
At this point, it seems such laws will likely never be written. The U.S. public education system has consistently created discriminatory policies. Historically, if anyone has been indoctrinated or been harmed by divisiveness and barriers to parent engagement, it has been the children from Black and Latino and Indigenous communities.
But now Black and Latino and Indigenous parents are fighting back, seeking to reverse policies that target immigrant children, perpetuate segregation and deny culturally relevant curricula and practices. Our fight needs to be spotlighted and supported.
Black and Latino parents want change; we want a transformation of our school systems to reflect our lived experiences. Polling shows that, despite some academic struggles, Black and Latino parents are more comfortable with remote learning (43 percent of Black and 42 percent of Latino families) than white parents (19 percent) because they feel that it gives them more control in keeping their children safe from microaggressions and health dangers.
Census data shows a related trend, with Black parents increasingly interested in homeschooling because of the pervasiveness of white-washed and culturally irrelevant curricula. From the spring to fall 2020, the proportion of Black families choosing homeschooling increased from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent.
Black and Latino and Indigenous parents are also mobilizing politically. This is apparent in Indiana, where House Bill 1134, which intended to ban the teaching of critical race theory and other “divisive” material, was killed last month thanks to vocal parent opposition, and in Chicago, where school parents kept their children home and students held walkouts to protest the fight against pandemic restrictions.
According to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics data, over 53 percent of all U.S. K-12 public school students are students of color. And the number is rising. As our schools become more and more racially and culturally diverse, it is long past time for the voices and opinions of marginalized parents to be heard and recognized.
This moment is critical. We are in the midst of a power struggle, not just over what we teach and how we teach it, but ultimately over what type of parents get to influence these decisions.
Who will shape the future of education in the most racially and culturally diverse school system our nation has ever seen?
Let’s mobilize around the millions of voices fighting to be deservedly heard and around the families asking to be valued and the people fighting for a democratically just, equitable and high-quality public education for every single child.
Selena A. Carrión is an experienced NYC classroom teacher, curriculum designer and writer. She is also a public school parent, advocating for humanizing learning equity in education and the transformation of our schools.
This piece about parental rights was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.