I am always bemused by the phrase “parents’ rights,” when utilized by right-wing culture warriors in our current education climate. Because—seriously—parents have always had the right to control pretty much anything around what their child was learning or doing in a public school. As long as it was in general alignment with the school’s mission, of course, and didn’t impact the education of other students.
I have been a public school teacher in five separate decades, beginning with the 1970s—and have seen parent demands and outrage issues come and go, from Sex Education (a perennial sore spot in the curriculum) to The Math Program (aka, Why don’t I understand my kids’ homework?) to Pay to Play Athletics. My friends who taught literature were always willing to substitute one book for another, if parents preferred not to have Jason read Huckleberry Finn or The Bluest Eye.
I could name dozens more instances of parents being upset about something “the school” did—or a teacher said—or how a particular policy was enforced. In fact, one of the reasons to put your children in public schools is the knowledge that you can complain, even organize a group of complainers, and there is a duly elected school board you can address, if school administrators don’t give you what you want.
What if what the parent wants is not in the best interests of their child, let alone all the other students in her class?
Your mind may jump here to the use of pronouns—or acceptance of realities (historical and current) that some parents find threatening–but over time, teachers run into many legitimate reasons not to trust parental requests or judgment (pay attention to that word, judgment…).
For example, I once had an Albanian student who had only been in the country for a few months. The class was a pull-out, called Homework Hall, where kids who had lots of missing assignments were sent with the hope that taking away their gym or computer privileges would cause them to buckle down and make up all the work. I was supposed to stand over them, keeping their noses to the academic grindstone.
Homework Hall was based on a flawed theory to begin with—but this girl was struggling with speaking/reading/writing English, and not completing most of her written work because it was written in a language she barely understood. I tried negotiating with her teachers to significantly reduce her assignments—answering the three most important questions instead of ten, or giving her a buddy who could read things to her, discuss the content to help her form answers with the vocabulary she’d mastered—but not all of her teachers were willing to do that.
In the meantime, her father kept coming to school. After getting a quarterly grade report, showing that she had not turned in some of her work, he wanted daily reports. He didn’t speak English, either—but his teenaged translator said if the girl was “lazy” then she would be punished. Swell.
This girl was the polar opposite of lazy. She worked hard. She was persistent. She just needed school-based adults in her corner. Her father had the right to ask for information about her progress, undoubtedly. And probably it was his prerogative to continue slapping her and verbally abusing her in a language she did understand, which seemed to be his cultural norm for how to deal with bad grades.
It was one of those judgment calls. Stand up for the kid–or decide it’s none of your business and confirm that she actually had failed to turn in assignments, because they were just too difficult?
In fact, every one of the kids in that class was a judgment call—the brilliant boy who simply refused to copy definitions from a glossary or do other pointless work, the child whose parents had just split up and couldn’t concentrate on equilateral triangles, the girl who was hinting at suicide in her English class free writes (which she never turned in, leading her to Homework Hall). Judgment calls, all of them.
What if you wanted to encourage parent-school dialogue—would passing laws requiring schools to post copies of existing legislation guaranteeing parental rights really be the solution?
Or what if you reported a child for seriously threatening behaviors—repeatedly—and nobody came to help?
And sometimes—angry parents are absolutely right to speak their minds about what’s happening in the school their child attends.
Parents do have rights—and they should. Public schools are obligated to acknowledge and address parents’ input. The best thing we can do to ensure parental rights are honored is to invite them to speak their minds and express their beliefs and wishes, calmly, with the relevant adults in the room.
What we are seeing now—nominally “parents’ rights”—is not about parents expressing their beliefs about serious education policy or even personal issues involving their child. They are politicized grievances, often based on nothing more than rumor. And they’re often quietly funded by groups that have no personal interests/issues with the school in question—only in damaging public schools.
The Governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, recently met with a group of parents, some from the district where I taught for 30+ years, to discuss education issues. Here’s what a man (whose son I taught, back in the 90s) had to say:
“The biggest issue I see is just the lack of respect…the Republicans feel that anybody can be a teacher these days, which is the craziest damn thing that you can think of. We recently elected a lot of new school board members who are anti-school. I don’t know any other way to put it. The slates that ran out here are just not going to be supportive of public education. So I think that’s the biggest problem that we see. There are school board members who actually believe, and it just astounds me, that there are litter boxes in the bathrooms. That’s what we’re dealing with.”
Whitmer agreed and made a point to debunk a right-wing conspiracy theory circulated by podcaster Joe Rogan and Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock that kids are identifying as “furries” and are using litter boxes in classrooms. This has been used to push anti-trans policies in schools.
Thank you, Governor—and all of the other education officials who are carrying on as if culture warriors had legitimate things to talk about, letting the system work as it is supposed to. But in all these school board meetings—especially those that become hostile encounters, it’s good to keep in mind that not everyone is set on building good community schools.
The Network for Public Education has a new (free) publication– Merchants of Deception: Parent Props and their Funders. Find out who’s really got a legitimate beef and who’s out to take down America’s best idea, a fully public education for every child, no matter what they bring to the table.