It seemed to start with masks. Sometime in mid-2020, parents — certain parents — got big mad about masking requirements in school. They started showing up, loudly, and suddenly organized, to school board meetings. They had rights, they demanded, and they were not going to let them be trampled.
Their grievance spilled over to vaccine requirements. From there, these parents latched onto critical race theory (CRT) and the lie that schools were trying to make their kids feel bad about being White. CRT became book bans, then a damaging focus on trans kids playing sports. They worked up to calling for the elimination of any mention of LGBTQ identity in school at all, folding in sex education, and on and on.
There’s a good reason the “parents’ rights” crowd’s complaints seem like a constantly moving target. Every single one of their arguments is a red herring. This isn’t a grassroots movement. It isn’t new. And it will not stop until public education is destroyed. This has always been the goal.
In recent months, the crowd has relied less on a new issue of the day for pretext. Fox News host Laura Ingraham put it bluntly: “It’s time to defund government education.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott eagerly told a conservative radio host in May that he wants to challenge the U.S. Supreme Court precedent that established the obligation of states to provide free education to every child.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, in some circumstances, public money can be used to pay for schools run by faith-based institutions. This decision opened the door wider for voucher programs that drain public schools of money in service of giving parents the choice of sending their kids to private schools.
Arizona legislators wasted no time in accepting the invitation, approving in a matter of days the nation’s largest school voucher program, providing parents a wide variety of private options for their child at taxpayer expense. Or no education at all: The law includes no system of accountability for where the money goes or how the shift affects a student’s education.
The reason opponents hate public schools so much is the same reason these institutions must be defended: There is no healthy democracy without healthy public schools.
The Founding Fathers knew it, which is why Thomas Jefferson and John Adams spearheaded the movement: ‘’The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it,” Adams wrote in 1785.
Modern-day research consistently shows a strong link between educational attainment and propensity to vote or to be otherwise politically engaged. Of course, the Founding Fathers’ vision was focused on the education of White children. When civil rights advocates tried to address this core inequity, the campaign to undermine public schools began.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that forced integration, White parents began organizing for “school choice.” Yep, the “voucher” idea started as a way for White folks to keep their kids from knowing any Black people, and to undermine public schools and the pivotal role they play in expanding access to democratic participation.
Since then, movements for “school choice” have flared up intermittently, starting with the post- civil rights movement in the 1970s. During the 1990s, “parents’ rights” rhetoric largely focused on White families trying to keep their kids from learning about gay people. It doesn’t matter that these rights are already well understood and defined. The movement isn’t actually about parents’ rights. It’s about whether public schools should exist at all, and for whom. It’s about who gets to participate in democracy.
The current campaign against public schools is working: In 2020, only 41% of people said in a Gallup poll that they had “a great deal of” or “quite a lot of” confidence in the public schools, which sounds grim until you learn that two years later, after all those school board wars, that number has dropped to 28%.
After each new headline about the national teacher shortage, even more teachers point out that this shortage is no accident. Teaching has always been an underpaid, undersung profession, but now educators are literally risking their lives to do their jobs with fewer resources. Driving educators out of the market will likely lead to a further decline in educational quality, leading to even fewer fans of public schooling.
There is no question that we deserve better public schools than the ones we have. But we can’t have better public schools if we have none. So whatever it takes, each of us needs to find a place inside us that wants to ride to their defense, and fast. Pay attention to what’s happening with your state and local schools by following the school board agenda. Show up when you’ve got something to say. Pay attention to what your state legislature and state board of education are up to.
The stakes could not be any higher. If public schools go, democracy itself may be next.
Jaclyn Friedman is the founder and executive director of EducateUS: SIECUS in Action and the author of four books, including “Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape.”
Clarification: The source of John Adams’ quote about education has been updated to reflect the period in which he shared his insights.