House Republicans last month passed an education bill emphasizing parents’ rights in the classroom, marking Congress’s foray into a growing American movement that seeks to expand the parental oversight of how gender and race are taught in public schools.
Although the bill is unlikely to pass in a Democratic-controlled Senate, parental rights have become a major issue for Republicans ahead of the 2024 election, with a tidal wave of legislation having been passed. adopted or introduced in two dozen states this year alone.
Critics say the innocuous-sounding term is being used to introduce laws that target trans youth and their families, a strategy that has a long history in America’s public education system.
“This movement doesn’t take all parents into consideration,” said Debi Jackson, parent of a trans child and trans rights activist in Kansas City, Missouri.
Jackson’s 15-year-old came out as transgender when he was four years old. Jackson pulled them out of public school after their social transition, which included changing their pronouns, was met with hostility by other parents.
“My right is for my child to be accepted,” Jackson said. “My right is for your child to get to know my child and not think my child is a mistake, or less than, or shouldn’t be treated with respect.”
While the parental rights lobby has become a force in American politics, recent school board elections there show that a similar movement is growing in Canada.
A wave of legislation
The Republican Party’s latest efforts to make parental rights a legislative star began in 2020, when COVID-19 had children learning at home with parents looking over their shoulders.
“There were a lot of grievances around education — as a result of the pandemic, as a result of school closures and mask mandates and vaccine mandates,” said education historian Jack Schneider. and professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Those complaints escalated in 2021, at heated school board meetings where parents had disagreements over book bans and Critical Race Theory, an academic framework based on the idea that racism is inherently rooted in life. American society, including its institutions, laws and public policies.
Politicians have taken notice. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin won on the sole issue of parental rights in his 2021 gubernatorial campaign; Florida Governor Ron Desantis – who is expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 – has made parental rights a central part of his agenda.
Last year, 85 parental rights bills were presented in 26 states, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that tracks US education law. four months later This yearthis number rises to 62 bills in 24 states.
Many of them focus on gender and sexuality. States like Texas, Iowa And Kentuckyfor example, all introduced or passed bills sharing provisions that would limit or outright ban teaching related to gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools at all levels.
Parental rights groups like Moms for Liberty – a self-proclaimed grassroots political action committee with close links to the Republican Party — have would have financed legions of anti-trans school counselors across the country.
Other groups, such as Parents Defending Education, are active tracking school districts that allow staff to hide a child’s gender identity from parents.
“The kind of spectrum of parental rights often emerges in the relationship to expand conversations about sexuality and gender in schools,” said Jen Gilbert, associate professor at York University in Toronto.
Gilbert, who studies LGBTQ issues in education, said parental rights are not so much about parents as a group as it is a “conservative strategy to limit the scope of conversations that schools might have with young people on sex and gender”.
Other provisions that impact trans students vary from bill to bill. The Texas bill requires schools to notify parents of a child’s changed gender identity within 24 hours, if a teacher or administrator is made aware of this information.
Some of the bills block other gender-affirming policies, banning school staff from addressing trans students by their preferred pronouns, or banning trans students from using the bathroom of their choice.
LGBTQ organizations, teachers’ unions and parent groups have criticized the federal and state legislation, with some saying the laws require schools to “send” trans students to their parents and the wider school community, which which makes them potentially vulnerable to abuse.
The bill would have “devastating consequences for LGBTQ students and their ability to learn in safe and supportive classroom environments across the country,” said Casey Pick, director of law and policy at the LGBTQ youth organization The Trevor Project. writing in a report.
A long history of parental rights
Schools “are, symbolically and literally, places where the future is built,” said historian Schneider, which is why they have long functioned as a battleground for culture wars in the United States.
The fact that most parents don’t walk into their child’s school on an ordinary day presents “this really ripe opportunity for some kind of cynical politics that would position schools as sites of indoctrination”, he said. added.
The United States has a long history of parental rights dating back to the progressive education movement of the early 20th century. During the first and second Red Scares, and again in the 1970s, concerns about communist influence and homosexuality in schools were hot issues.
“It is no coincidence that schools were used to try to scare people, for schools then, as now, are one of the most widespread institutions, the most common type of organization more extensive than we have in the United States and Canada,” Schneider said.
Former US President Ronald Reagan, whose administration launched a massive reform of the country’s public education system, invoked the rights of parents in a speech from 1983 on communism and morality in school.
A contemporary version of the parental rights movement emerged in 1993, when a New York City school principal introduced a “rainbow curriculum” that included children’s books with gay characters, such as Heather has two moms. Parents angered by the lesson plan staged citywide protests that led to the executive being fired.
A few years later, Colorado proposed that a Parental Rights Amendment be added to the state constitution. A New York Times article on the legislation called parental rights “the religious right’s hottest new issue for the late 1990s.”
Canadian movement will be ‘much bigger’ in 10 years
The movement is not limited to our neighbors to the south.
“We think it’s an American thing, but if you go back to the sex ed controversies during [2014 to 2018] in Ontario, it was framed more as a parental rights issue,” said Gilbert of York University.
The recent skirmishes in Canadian school boards “indicate the ways … in which conservative parents see themselves as a political lobby and use the platform of parental rights”.
Several Canadian organizations for the defense of parental rights have emerged in recent years. Action4Canada, a COVID-19 conspiracy group, did not respond to a request for comment. Blueprint For Canada, which opposes inclusive sex education, declined a phone interview with CBC News.
The parental rights movement in Canada will be “much bigger in 10 years,” said Marc Vella, president and founder of ParentsVoice BC, a parental rights political party that fielded 28 school board candidates in the fall election. of the province.
Some candidates who ran under his banner opposed the province’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) policies, which the province said promote inclusion for LGBTQ students.
“I think a lot of people feel like all the social justice stuff in schools has gone too far,” he said, later adding, “Are we doing this at the expense of all , in a way, what I think of as the basis of education?
LGBTQ parents and parents of trans youth are left out of this parental rights framework, Gilbert said. This last group is particularly affected by the current wave of legislation in the United States.
“You really violate the rights of the parents of these young people to take care of their children as they see fit,” she said. “Somehow their rights to care for their children don’t matter.”
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