The Godfather of ‘Parental Rights’ Is a Longtime Enemy of Public Schools

Michael Farris wants your tax dollars for his Christian conservative friends. Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock/Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto

“Parental rights” and “Parents matter” are Republican-blessed slogans for various forms of political warfare over what public schools teach. It sounds pretty innocuous, of course; who doesn’t think parents should have some say over what their kids are learning all day? But that’s far from what parental rights’ crusaders want. At the heart of what is driving this movement are two distinct but interrelated goals: giving organized groups of conservative (and usually Christian) parents control over what happens in public-school classrooms at the expense of education professionals, and giving these same parents control over taxpayer-provided education dollars.

So what often begins as protests at school-board meetings about allegedly offensive curricular materials or school programs usually leads to the familiar fight for school vouchers that give parents the resources to take their kids out of public schools if they aren’t completely satisfied with, well, everything. Make public schools just like the private Christian schools we’d prefer, the logic proceeds, or give us their money and we’ll take care of it ourselves at private schools or at home. It’s no coincidence that in Republican state after state, school-voucher proposals are couched in the language and ideology of parental rights.

The Washington Post has provided new insight into the way demands for parents’ rights within the public-school system tend to lead to demands for parents’ rights to leave public schools while taking taxpayer dollars with them. In an article based on disclosure of a conference call involving a shadowy group of very wealthy Christian conservative activists, it becomes clear the godfather of the “parental rights” revolution and the director of many of its troops is famed homeschool advocate and conservative legal guerrilla Michael Farris, who was head of the powerful Alliance Defending Freedom until recently:

[S]peaking on a confidential conference call to a secretive group of Christian millionaires seeking, in the words of one member, to “take down the education system as we know it today,” Farris made the same points he had made in courtrooms since the 1980s. Public schools were indoctrinating children with a secular worldview that amounted to a godless religion, he said.

The solution: lawsuits alleging that schools’ teachings about gender identity and race are unconstitutional, leading to a Supreme Court decision that would mandate the right of parents to claim billions of tax dollars for private education or home schooling.

In the meantime, state parental-rights initiatives (more than two dozen just this year) and the private-school-voucher programs that 32 states have enacted in some form are building a foundation for this right-to-a-voucher claim and an ever-bigger constituency for taxpayer-financed private and home-based education. Just as important, the ideology of parental rights (to which Farris has contributed in draft legislation at both the federal and state levels) has become a central tenet of Republican politics, which makes sense when you consider how well it combines appeals to conservative Christian-base voters and school-focused suburban swing voters. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin, with Farris’s assistance (Farris lives there and was actually the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor back in 1993), made parental rights the signature of his upset victory in 2019, in a state that had been trending very blue. And parental rights as the rationale both for conservative curriculum and school-library controls and for one of the most expansive voucher programs in the country has been central to the rise of Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Republican politicians have long enjoyed attacking teachers unions and “educational bureaucrats.” Now, they can do so as champions of the rights of parents, to whom children purportedly belong like livestock.

Farris and his former colleagues (and still allies) at ADF are nearly ubiquitous in conservative culture war politics, as New York’s Irin Carmon noted earlier this year:

[The] Alliance Defending Freedom [is] a group whose leaders like to rail against the “homosexual agenda” and helped draft and defend the Mississippi abortion ban that became the vehicle to overturn Roe v. Wade last year. The ADF is also behind the suit asking a sympathetic Trump-appointed judge to ban one of two pills used in medication abortion, which is expected to be decided any day now.

But “parental rights” (a term Farris began heavily using back in 2007) is really the umbrella for all these reactionary causes. And a fragmented education system in which Christian conservative parents can practice their values at public expense is a bit of a model for the broader idea of “religious freedom” as guaranteeing a separate society in which discrimination is an inviolable right.

So they’re not talking about making public schools more “accountable,” as the parental0rights rhetoric would suggest. The idea is to replace “government schools” with training facilities for the godly shock troops of the future.

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Godfather of ‘Parental Rights’ Is an Enemy of Public Schools