In early November, in a crushing defeat for the Democrats, Terry McAuliffe lost his bid for governor of Virginia to private equity executive Glenn Youngkin, a Trump-friendly Republican. Youngkin ran on familiar GOP themes—job creation, taxes, crime—and McAuliffe, a centrist who had served as governor of the state between 2014 and 2018, was expected to skate to victory. But when the Democrat proclaimed on the debate stage that he didn’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach, Youngkin pounced. In the waning weeks of the campaign, the GOP candidate made parents’ rights his central cause. Voters responded with alacrity.
In Youngkin’s upset win, the GOP saw its path to forever rule. And it was lined with angry parents. In his election-night letter, dashed off as votes were still being counted, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pledged to roll out a “Parents’ Bill of Rights” as a central plank of the GOP’s efforts to retake Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. Josh Hawley, who aspires to occupy that residence, announced his own rights bill, one that would “turn back efforts to shut parents out of their children’s education.” The Wall Street Journal made the new cause official: The GOP was now the “Parents’ Party.”
Republicans’ newfound passion for America’s parents has a straightforward explanation. As the Virginia victory demonstrated, parental rage can be mined for electoral gold. And right now parents have plenty of reasons to be unhappy. Pandemic schooling, with its arduous, unpredictable schedule of shutdowns and mandates, is in its third year, with no end in sight. Meanwhile, school districts are fumbling as they grapple with an array of contentious issues, including the appropriate way to teach about racism and how best to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse student body. The result has been an incendiary debate about not just what schools teach and how they’re run but whose voice really matters in those decisions.
This is not the first time parents’ grievances have been exploited for politics’ sake. Three decades ago, the GOP and a familiar line-up of conservative groups coalesced behind the same banner of parental rights. The cause even made it into the GOP’s Contract With America, the ambitious legislative agenda laid out by conservatives en route to flipping Congress in 1994. When Pat Buchanan launched his 1996 presidential bid, he declared himself the candidate of parents. “You have my solemn word,” Buchanan intoned on the stump in New Hampshire, a state he went on to win. “I will shut down the U.S. Department of Education, and parental right will prevail in our public schools again.”
And yet within a few years, the issue came to be seen as a stalking horse for the religious right’s agenda of dismantling public education, and it fizzled with surprising speed. Now, as conservatives once more wave the banner of parents’ rights, the sudden demise of a potent political issue 30 years ago offers some valuable lessons.
The question of who should call the shots when it comes to children’s upbringing—parents or the state—has simmered for nearly 500 years, since Massachusetts enacted the first education law in the colonies. But when the debate flared anew in the 1990s, it was spurred by a rising religious right and a conservative movement that sought to meld the fury of the culture wars with anti-government sentiment. The precipitating events occurred in 1993, when parents in New York City successfully ousted the chief of the city’s schools over a plan to distribute condoms to elementary schoolers and to adopt the so-called Rainbow Curriculum, which featured books such as Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. These outrages resembled others across the country. Conservatives were incensed by their conviction that public schools were teaching “secular humanism,” the precursor to today’s critical race theory. Wherever they looked, they saw evidence that the traditional family was under siege. And while many of their specific demands were old—to ban books, allow prayer in schools, and institute school vouchers—the movement coursed with new energy.
“The parents’ revolt is under way,” wrote Bill Kristol and Jay Lefkowitz in 1993, warning that parents would soon prove as great a threat to the liberal establishment as had the anti-tax backlash of the 1970s. Indeed, the furor was an extension of that earlier movement, the writers argued: “It builds on and deepens a populist rebellion against the liberal bureaucratic state.”
That the White House was occupied at the time by a family named Clinton no doubt also fueled the cause. Heath Brown, a professor of public policy at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State, argued that the emergence of parental rights as an animating issue in the 1990s can be traced to antipathy toward the Clintons. “It’s not a coincidence,” he suggested, “that you see parental rights emerging at the same time that the conservative movement is starting to target Hillary.” Mining a law article on children’s rights that Hillary Clinton had written 20 years earlier while teaching law at the University of Arkansas, conservatives found all the proof they needed of a liberal plot to undermine the family. Pat Buchanan summed up the charge in his 1992 GOP convention speech: “Hillary believes that 12-year-olds have a right to sue their parents, and she has compared marriage as an institution to slavery—and life on an Indian reservation.”
If liberals wanted to replace the family with the government equivalent of a “village,” then conservatives had a neat solution: fight back by strengthening parental rights. As the commentator Thomas Edsall opined in The Washington Post, parental rights were the conservative’s answer to the Equal Rights Amendment. Armed with a powerful new legal weapon, parents would be able to take on “the cultural and sexual liberalism of the education and government establishment.”
Between 1994 and 1996, the advocacy group Of the People, which was founded in 1993 in Virginia, introduced parents’ rights initiatives in 28 states. And that was just the start. The campaign sought to enshrine such rights in all 50 state constitutions, as well as in the U.S. Constitution. A familiar roster of organizations on the religious right, including the Family Research Council and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, backed the effort. The American Legislative Exchange Council, which adopted the measure as one of its model bills, lent political muscle. And in a sign of the melding of faith and politics behind the crusade, Of the People tapped the head of the Michigan GOP as one of its leaders. Her name was Betsy DeVos.
And yet translating the outrage and energy behind the parent revolt into legislation proved difficult. In one state after another, lawmakers killed proposed bills or scuttled them off to committee. By the fall of 1996, Colorado, the first state where parental rights were on the ballot, was seen as a make-or-break test case for the movement. “There are 27 states waiting on Colorado,” DeVos’s Of the People co-chair, Jeffrey Bell, told attendees at the Christian Coalition Road to Victory Conference. A win in Colorado, Bell said, could prove more important than retaking the White House or Congress—and, he announced, “We will win there.”
At first, the Colorado bill seemed as if it would indeed succeed. “It really looked like the parental rights side would win,” recalled Fofi Mendez, who led the campaign against the proposed amendment, which aimed to enshrine parents’ rights in the state constitution. “The Rocky Mountain News did a poll that found that something like 76 percent of Coloradans said that they supported the amendment.”
Mendez was 36 at the time. Although she had some campaign experience, this was the first time she was at the helm of a statewide effort. That the task of stopping the measure went to a pair of relative novices—Mendez and a young lobbyist named Pat Steadman were the campaign’s co-leaders—was indicative of the long odds of doing so. The Coalition for Parental Responsibility had support from an array of conservative and religious groups in Colorado, and well-heeled backers. Of the People poured money into the campaign. The opposing side, Protect Our Children, had a dozen education, child welfare, and civil liberties groups behind it, but little cash. “The whole campaign was run on a shoestring,” Mendez said, noting that the lopsided polls made it nearly impossible to attract donors.
“Colorado was really ground zero,” Mendez recalled. “Because the same groups were pushing legislation in all of these other states, there was just a tremendous amount of attention being paid to the debate here.” A single poll conducted by Protect Our Children determined early on that voters were largely in agreement with the amendment’s proponents. They did think that schools and other government agencies had too much power when compared to parents. “What kids could see, read, hear in schools, including sex education, was a major flash point,” Mendez said. But the more voters learned about what the measure would actually do, the less they liked it. And soon they were hearing a lot.
The initial group behind Protect Our Children mushroomed from a task force of 12 organizations to more than 150 groups. Organizations including the Colorado Council of Churches, the Colorado Academy of Family Physicians, and the Colorado Association of School Boards, all committed to educating their members about what passage of the parents’ rights amendment would mean. “That grassroots messaging was our advertising,” Mendez explained.
Parents’ rights advocates had intentionally left the wording of the amendment vague. But now opponents rushed to supply the missing details. Teachers’ organizations warned that the education system was at risk as parents demanded customized curricula to match their faith and morals. Librarians expressed fear that they might have to stop granting library cards to children under 18, lest the young patrons check out materials that offended their parents. Businesses sounded the alarm, too. Owners of bookstores and video rental outlets worried that the amendment opened them up to lawsuits from parents.
The warnings from child welfare advocates proved to be the most potent. The amendment, they argued, was likely to have serious unintended consequences: It might prevent minors from accessing birth control and make it harder to remove children from homes where they were being abused. When the National District Attorneys Association came out against the measure out of concern that it could nullify child abuse laws, public sentiment began to shift. “What really worried people was that parental rights was going to protect bad parents and put vulnerable kids at risk,” Mendez said, who’d started her career as an advocate for the rights of victims of sexual assault. And the very element that had given the amendment its potential power—the prospect of a new legal weapon for parents to challenge public school curricula and child abuse protection laws—now gave its critics something to seize on. Colorado Governor Roy Romer characterized the amendment as a “full employment bill for lawyers.” The conservative pundit George Will devoted a whole column to the issue, warning that the amendment’s 17 words were “rich in potential for breeding litigation” over matters like school textbooks and dress codes: “Do we want to turn every parent’s grievance into grounds for suing?”
National commentators’ focus on a state-level ballot question reflected another predicament of the parents’ rights side. By painting Colorado as the test case for the movement, proponents set the amendment and the cause up for a level of scrutiny that served neither well. Meanwhile, the influx of outside money funding the amendment attracted extensive media coverage. As reporters dug in, they found a trove of examples of exactly the sorts of cautionary tales that amendment critics kept warning about. In New Hampshire, an education bill would have required schools to allow parents to opt their kids out of a lengthy list of topics, including evolution, sexuality, nuclear war, and “Globalism,” as well as any activities involving role-playing or self-reflection. The list of potentially banned topics being circulated by Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum was even longer. The more such examples made it into news stories, the less innocuous the amendment seemed.
In the waning days of the campaign season, every major newspaper in Colorado editorialized against the amendment. Then, two weeks before election day, William Armstrong, a prominent conservative who had represented Colorado in Congress, spoke out in opposition. While he was sympathetic to parents’ desire for more say over sex education and psychological testing in school, Armstrong said he wasn’t convinced that a constitutional amendment was the right way to go. And he echoed the critics’ strongest argument: The measure could end up making vulnerable kids more vulnerable.
On election day, 57 percent of voters rejected Colorado’s parents’ rights amendment. And the predictions made by Of the People co-chair Jeffrey Bell quickly proved prophetic. What happened in Colorado did determine the fate of his movement, though not in the way that he’d hoped. The following year, in Virginia, where Of the People was based, lawmakers defeated a parental rights bill backed by the governor, and the cause sputtered in that state, too, brought down by the same concerns that doomed the Colorado amendment.
What made the hot cause of the late 1990s peter out? It was “a bridge too far,” said Deanna Duby, who ran the education department for People for the American Way in the 1990s. “As soon as the debate became about what, specifically, these conservative groups wanted to ban—educational materials, sex education, general curricular stuff—people started to wake up,” Duby explained. “They could see the implications.”
The parents’ rights cause also ran headlong into another GOP priority: tort reform. Even as conservatives were pushing to enable parents to litigate against liberalism, the GOP was waging war against excessive litigation and another favorite party bogeyman: the liberal trial lawyer whose lawsuit winnings went into Democratic Party coffers. Parents’ rights may have made it into the Contract With America, but so, too, did the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. In a bill that would enable parents who felt that their rights had been infringed on to sue in federal courts, the contradiction was glaring. Not only would the law lead to more cases in an already clogged system, but, as conservative critics pointed out, there was an unmistakable inconsistency in advocates of limited government arguing that parents needed a legal remedy that would essentially involve federal authority in the most local of issues.
Enter George W. Bush, whose brand of compassionate conservatism featured as its marquee education issue not parental rights but student achievement. His signature policy, No Child Left Behind, required all schools receiving federal funding to administer annual tests whether parents liked them or not. In the ensuing shift of priorities for conservatives, parental rights, the animating issue throughout the 1990s, virtually disappeared.
Now that the cause is back, what are its prospects? Will the revived movement meet the same fate it did before? Certainly the likeness between the rhetoric then and now—and the promise politicians seem to feel it holds for them—is striking. Parents should be able to send their kids to a school that “teaches their children what they want them to learn,” likely presidential candidate Mike Pompeo declared this fall during a visit to New Hampshire, the very state where Pat Buchanan, draped in the mantle of parent rights, launched his 1996 presidential candidacy. Pompeo joins a growing roster of White House wannabes, including Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, and Mike Pence, who are similarly banking their political hopes on parental grievances.
For all of the recent attention, however, the parents’ rights crusade is already running afoul of the same obstacles that stymied it in the ’90s. Where calls to give parents more say over their children’s education may resonate with voters in the abstract, efforts to ban books are as controversial as ever. And Glenn Youngkin’s path to victory in Virginia may be difficult for others in the GOP to replicate. Youngkin stoked the education culture wars, but he also promised the largest education budget in Virginia’s history—a position it seems unlikely that other Republicans will take, given the party’s increasing hostility to the very idea of public education.
A recent poll from the pro-business, anti-tax group Club for Growth points to more red flags. According to the survey of 3,149 registered voters, the idea of sending tax dollars to private religious schools—a central pillar of the parental rights agenda—remains deeply unpopular. One of the survey questions tested the label “parental empowerment,” but the rebrand did little to help. Moreover, the poll found, making critical race theory a campaign issue motivated only the GOP base and repelled other voters. Thirty-five years ago, the parent rights movement sputtered under the harsh glare of public scrutiny. Today the cause is back, exhumed by Republicans who see fresh political promise in old cultural grievances. The playbook, the policies, even the campaign slogans are retreads. But this time will be different. The GOP seems certain of it.