Parental-rights activists have spent decades urging Republicans to join their far-right movement, which is deeply hostile to public education. Over the last few years, their efforts have begun to succeed. A conservative backlash against COVID-era school closures and masking policies led to the formation of groups like Moms of Liberty, which have since become standard-bearers in the broader fight against “wokeness.” Parents simply want to protect children from smut and indoctrination, activists say. “Parental rights” is veneer, though: The movement exclusively opposes LGBT content, sex education, and anti-racist material. They’ve banned books and threatened librarians and fired teachers. These activists are extremists, and so are their allies in office.
If anyone doubted that, Donald Trump’s latest education proposal should enlighten them. The former president’s top priority is to “restore” parental rights, he announced last week. By this, he means he wants schools to out LGBT children to their parents — or, as he put it, notify parents “if a teacher or other school employee” has changed a child’s “name, pronouns, or understanding of his or her gender.” Many of Trump’s policies are designed to push children back into the closet, all at the behest of far-right parents. He says he’ll sign an executive order “instructing every federal agency, including the Department of Education, to cease all programs that promote the concept of sex and gender transition, at any age.” After he ends this imaginary problem, he’ll “declare” that any hospital providing gender-affirming care to trans youth “will no longer meet federal health and safety standards for Medicaid and Medicare.”
There’s more. He wants to create a “credentialing body” for educators “who embrace patriotic values and support the American Way of Life.” (Caps his.) He still wants to build that National Garden of American Heroes, which would honor William F. Buckley Jr. alongside Harriet Tubman. Teachers will carry guns, in Trump’s world, and he sounds like a big fan of the school-to-prison pipeline. “He will order the Departments of Justice and Education to overhaul federal standards on disciplining minors to get violent thugs out of our children’s classrooms so they can get the professional help they need,” he pledges. Principals will be directly elected, which could allow the far right to completely control local schools. He also wants to close the entire Department of Education, which would fulfill an old far-right dream.
Parental-rights activists and Trump have much in common beyond their hatred for LGBT people. They both share an authoritarian tendency. The activist Michael Farris is a useful example. He has been railing against public education before Moms for Liberty was a glimmer in a fascist’s eye. The Washington Post recently reported that in 2021, he spoke to a group of Christian millionaires who want to “take down the education system as we know it today.” Farris, the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, has a simple solution, the Post added: “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.”
The goal, in other words, is to end public education as we know it. This is entirely compatible with Trump’s aims. And that may not sound authoritarian at first. Parental rights is about liberty, or so conservatives say; the right to choose the best school for your child, or to control the upbringing of your children, is at stake. In reality, conservatives already have the right to indoctrinate their children however they wish. Not even the most strident liberal wants to take that right away. What conservatives want is to enforce their ideology on others. Trump says he will “promote positive education about the nuclear family, the roles of mothers and fathers, and celebrating rather than erasing the things that make men and women different and unique.” This goes beyond a simple personal commitment to traditional gender roles. This is about cultural transformation, propelled by the power of the state.
Public education is a collective good, designed for the flourishing of all. Should conservatives capture it and drain it of resources, they’ll deprive the public of an important institution and move that much closer to their political goals. Poor children will face steep disadvantages while wealthy children prosper. Private religious schools will teach hatred with public funds. Children will be forced to stay in the closet — and in this version of America, their options won’t improve much after they become adults. Trump is betting this vision is popular enough to make him president a second time. We should all hope he’s wrong.