In A Country With A Lot Of Parents, Why Can’t Democrats Even Cough Up The Words ‘Parent’s Rights?’

I was recently having lunch with a friend, who was a senior hand in the Carter White House. We were noting that in those days if you had predicted there would be a TV network where much of the guest talent was former military, CIA and other spooky types, FBI, and assorted other national security players and the audience lapping it up would be mostly Democrats you’d be laughed at. You’d be ridiculed even more if you then added that when the Russians invaded a sovereign nation many Republicans and conservatives would advocate against supporting efforts to counter Russian military force.

Yet here we are. It’s hard to miss how as a feature of the partisan hardening in this country our politics are becoming predictably and sometimes comically reactionary. There are counterexamples, sure, Joe Biden on crime and policing for instance cuts against the activist grain of the Democratic Party. But in general there is a reaction – counter-reaction problem. How many people died because they wouldn’t follow “Democratic” public health advice? When Donald Trump would call for due process Twitter would light up with people who formerly were at least nominally on board with civil liberties shouting him down. (Reader, even toxic losers deserve due process, it’s basically the whole idea). The ongoing January 6th saga is a depressing, and dangerous, example. Not long ago the Twitter spectacle would have freaked out liberals.

Here in education, one place this reactionary trend shows up a lot is around “parents rights.” Like “Make America Great Again” it’s one of these slogans that it’s sort of politically suicidal to be against yet people do it anyway. (I’m not talking about “MAGA” and 1/6 and all that, but just the 2016 version with those four words and their plain meaning.) When confronted with “Make America Great Again” Democrats could have said, yes, we should do that and here’s our agenda for how. Instead, prominent voices started arguing America wasn’t really ever great, and ridiculing people who love their country. Or, worse, claiming those who believe in American greatness are racist or deplorable and openly or secretly hoping to resurrect a pre-civil rights America. Sure, those types exist, but, not surprisingly this sentiment didn’t sit well with a lot of people who don’t think like that and also love their country. It helped turn a consequential election and drive a brutal wedge in our politics and culture. It’s why “ultra” MAGA or whatever stupid nomenclature is now being road tested.

You can see the same trend on parents rights.

Sure, this is one rando on Twitter but I hear it a lot including from influential people behind the scenes. Some say it out loud:

More recently, here’s the United States Secretary of Education dismissing the idea.

I want to underscore this for the folks in the back: Seething contempt for the idea that parents should get a say in their children’s education is really not a great political strategy in a country with a lot of parents who vote. As I wrote back in 2021 not acknowledging the problems parents are facing, or worse being contemptuous of them is politically tone deaf. It has real consequences – especially right now.

My – should be obvious – point here is that Democrats should champion their own parents rights agenda, too. Ideally in my view it would include school choice, given that’s sort of the ultimate parent right and can be a part of an accountability strategy. But Democrats remain cross-pressured between Democratic voters who want choice (in particular Black and Hispanic voters as well as moderate voters) and white progressives and powerful Democratic special interest groups that don’t.* The producer v. consumer tension in the Democratic coalition will not be easily resolved – certainly not in this post.

Still, even short of using the c-word a robust parents’ rights could include things like a right to equitable school finance and access to high quality curriculum and advanced classes. It could include some sort of right to know whether the material your children are learning is grade-level aligned and research-based. Tutoring and other post-pandemic recovery supports would be a good right to champion, especially coupled with some requirement around an actual evidence base. Transparency about school performance and student learning. Universal screening for gifted and other enrichment programs. Sensible and fair school discipline policies that both ensure orderly safe schools and create positive alternatives to just tossing kids out of school or criminalizing them. And yes, it’s not unreasonable for parents to have a right to see surveys their kids are going to take and to be confident schools are not actively concealing things from them or offering counseling or other services without parental consent. C’mon. Being against that is not only political suicide, it undercuts the public schools. Those are strong majority positions among parents and voters.

You could even do some really bold stuff like empowering parents more around who their child’s teacher is so that it’s not just to connected or affluent parents having access to that valuable information. Not all of these are federal plays, but they are the kind of things that could lead to more responsive and accountable schools.

Right now House Republicans are championing a messaging bill on parents’ rights, and the debate is playing out in predictable fashion. (You should also read Neal McCluskey’s libertarian critique of the whole idea.) The Dems have an idea of their own but it has political liabilities, too, because it’s an exercise in activist pleasing and it doesn’t seem sufficient to the moment.

Whether you’re a Democrat, a Republican, or a ‘no thank you,’ the salutary benefit of a debate over parents rights like this would be an actual debate about policy and practice questions relating to kids and parents, not just culture war atmospherics like what’s happening on the Hill right now. And it would better highlight both the large areas of overlap and the real fault lines. My – should be clear now – bias is I don’t think either “side” has it right so that’s a debate I welcome. But even objectively I can’t help but think a debate about what an education focused agenda for schools and families looks like would have a clarifying effect and perhaps move us forward even a small bit. It’s surely better than what passes for an education debate now.

There is a school of thought that the culture war appeal has peaked. And to some extent I think that’s true and plenty of evidence shows there is more common ground than the professional culture warriors on right and left want to acknowledge because it’s not in their interest to. I pointed out back when this was heating up that what Glenn Youngkin accomplished in Virginia was not a just-add water strategy in all federal races and that some Republicans would overreach – see DeSantis, Ron.

But I’d suggest an older adage applies even more: In politics it’s hard to beat something with nothing. And right now the Democratic answer on parents’ rights is nothing. Not in the badass Godfather, “my final offer is this: nothing” way, but in a we got nothing way.

That’s a miss. An avoidable and consequential one.

*In my view any parents rights agenda that doesn’t include any choice will be easy pickings for the critics and perhaps politically worse than doing nothing because it will lay bare the tensions. Choice ideas are not rapidly being adopted in states because they’re all proven, but because right now they’re all popular. Parents want change. You have charters, public school choice, inter-district choice, there are plenty of options that address zip-code assigned schooling that while still party splitting for the Dems nonetheless enjoy sufficient support to make the politics work. It’s not vouchers or ESAs or nothing. Democrats could also focus on student choice and agency – for instance access to post-secondary options or CTE opportunities in high school. Here, too, doing nothing is not a great strategy.