by Kevin Roberts
The stunning success of conservative education reform across the country in the past few years is the result a moral fact: Parents are children’s primary educators. Until very recently, this was not disputed, let alone controversial.
But lately, it has become clear that progressive elites who run teachers unions and school boards, the Democratic Party, and the corporate media no longer share this view. Their contempt for parents’ rights has fueled a long train of abuses, from racist curricula to a war on girls sports and bathrooms to darker episodes of criminal cover-ups and student grooming.
The good news is, conservative leaders have answered this challenge with action, rather than just tweets and talking points. The better news is, it has been elected conservatives in the states leading and delivering substantive K-12 policy reforms.
Fifteen states have already adopted Parents’ Bill of Rights laws that affirm moms and dads as the ultimate authority on their kids’ education. Lawmakers in a dozen other states are considering similar proposals this year.
Some governors, such as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, have gone even further, asserting authority over public education in their states to, among other things, rid school libraries of pornographic books and classrooms of “woke” indoctrination.
An additional 11 states have passed transparency reforms that give parents access to public schools’ instructional materials. And at least four more may follow their lead in 2023.
To the Left, these are political encroachments into a space that belongs exclusively to trained, licensed, unionized Marxist activists. To everyone else, this stuff is common sense.
Of course parents should be able to see what their kids are being taught in schools. Of course public schools should not be shelving porn, staging sexually explicit performances, or forcing children to sit through lessons that conflict with their family’s values. Of course the bigotry and superstitions of “critical theory” have no place in elementary school classrooms. And of course school employees should not hide—let alone encourage—children’s mental health challenges behind parents’ backs.
Failing such minimal conditions of parental trust and student well-being is not education or even activism. It’s something more like child abuse.
As conservatives around the country lead this fight, conservatives in Congress are wondering how Washington can help. The first thing they can do—on education, as in so many other areas—is to wield the power they have.
For too long, conservatives—either out of aversion to conflict or lack of imagination—have shied away from using the authority voters give them to win real victories against the Left. This is not to say that Republicans should seek a federal takeover of public education the next time they control Congress and the White House. Rather, conservatives should identify the nexuses between institutions they control and the problems American families face—and act.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., and 122 co-sponsors, puts a bright spotlight on the importance of transparency to parents. It clarifies for confused school boards and woke administrators that their federal funds are predicated on serving their students, parents, and communities—not their ideology.
The bill would require federally supported schools to post or distribute their curricula, and to make both their budgets and classroom materials available to students’ parents. It guarantees parents’ right to speak at school board meetings, meet with their children’s teachers, and be appraised of disciplinary and academic issues.
As a fifth-generation educator myself, I can say these are practices good schools already do. Good principals, teachers, and school boards want parents involved. They want parents to know what books their kids are reading and what’s being taught in their classrooms.
Importantly, the proposal offers needed improvements to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, including provisions that prohibit schools from acting as a student’s parent when it comes to technology usage, along with prohibitions on school officials making decisions for a child on vaccines. The proposal also blocks the sale of student information for commercial purposes. These would be welcome updates to federal law.
Parents and schools are supposed to be partners, not rivals—and in that relationship, it’s moms and dads who are the senior partners. That’s the principle that should guide conservative education reformers at every level of government.
For cities and counties, that means choosing curricula that reflect communities’ goals and values. For states, that means protecting children’s innocence and privacy, protecting parents’ authority over their kids (including via school choice), and protecting everyone from bigotry, idiocy, and propaganda at school.
Finally, for Congress, that means reminding all Americans that when it comes to education, government works for moms, dads, and kids—not the other way around.
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Kevin Roberts, Ph.D., is president of The Heritage Foundation.
Photo “Parents Getting Their Child Ready for School” by August de Richelieu.