A few weeks ago, my wife and I received a note from our daughter’s school that her 8th-grade class would soon begin a unit on drinking, drugs and healthy relationships. We were invited to contact the school if we had questions or concerns. We had none, but were glad for the notification because it gave us an opportunity to check in on our kid. On the day they started the relationship unit, I asked her about the class. They had talked about consent, she said, which was important, but also something she already knew. (“It’s on the internet, Dad!”) I was, I suppose, reassured. More importantly, I felt the school had modeled the right approach: inform parents, let them ask questions, give them what they need to be present for their kids, but don’t suggest they can control what happens inside the classroom. Sadly, around the country, that’s not how most of these conversations play out.
At the end of March, House Republicans in Washington, D.C., passed a new “Parents Bill of Rights,” a piece of legislation they claimed would guarantee parents the ability to control all aspects of their children’s education and medical decisions. The bill not only mandates a parents’ right to know precisely what curricula and materials are available to students in classrooms and school libraries, but eases their path to getting books or topics they don’t like banned from school. While this national bill has little chance of passing in a Democrat-controlled Senate, it follows similar “parental rights” laws that have been proposed in roughly two-thirds of all states in the country and become law in at least ten. In fact, parents already have broad rights when it comes to being informed about what’s happening in their children’s classes, with special attention paid to sensitive topics, as with my daughter’s health unit. But because Republicans don’t want to admit they are banning books or discussions about topics like menstruation (as part of broader prohibitions on talk about human sexuality), they are using this false “parental rights” framework to empower individual activists or groups that want to ban books to force public education into compliance with radical right-wing perspectives.
As misleading as Republicans’ use of this term is, the framework has made me think about the rights I wish I — and all families — had. We already have the right to review curricula. What we need is the right to not raise children in poverty or amid gun violence and the daily terror of mass shooter drills. We need a lot of things, none of which are encoded in Republicans’ current slate of bills. A real parents’ bill of rights would not just be about what we want for our children, though it starts there.
As a matter of basic principle, children have the right to education, housing, food, medicine and safety. They have a right to autonomy, though it’s complicated. (A baby can hardly exercise bodily autonomy or freedom of religion.) The right to these basic needs are really universal human rights, though as enshrined in documents like the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child—ratified by every country in the United Nations except the United States — children are due “special care and assistance.” Parents and other caregivers are obligated, then, to ensure that these fundamental rights, these basic needs, are met: moral and legal obligations that can come with penalties for those who fail to meet them.
But what if we can’t provide basic needs, as is true of so many people living in poverty? In this country, the state provides some assistance, but it’s rarely enough and usually hard-to-impossible to access. (As I write this essay, I’m fighting to maintain my disabled son’s access to Medicaid in the face of overwhelming bureaucracy.) A real parental rights bill would mandate levels of help that meet people’s actual needs.
The insufficiency of the limited benefits the United States offers parents is a choice our country has made, again and again throughout history. But at times, activists have used the framework of parents’ rights to push back. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the National Welfare Rights Organization—an anti-poverty organization led by Black women like Johnnie Tillmon and formed in coalition with scores of other welfare rights organizations — argued that welfare should be a “guaranteed right, much more expansive and far less punitive to the people who needed it.” They were pushing back against a contemporary libertarian argument that welfare could not be a right because it was predicated on taxation, which they saw as coercion.
More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the expanded child tax credit—which provided most U.S. parents with $250-300 payments per child per month — did more to drive down child poverty than any other measure in recent history. The program is gone now, thanks to Republicans and conservative W.Va. Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin. But as we fight to get it back, I’m struck by the parental rights framing the National Welfare Rights Organization used, and the potential in a nationwide progressive movement that calls for matching public support to parental obligations as a fundamental right.
The same principle holds for education, the primary battleground where the current parents’ rights fight is playing out. While Republicans are focused on (conservative) parents’ right to control public school teachers and materials, a much more fundamental issue is access. We require parents to provide their children an education, so the state should ensure equality of access to high-quality education. This, too, has never been fully achieved in this country, but in the disability world we’ve made some strides. I’m the father of an autistic boy with Down syndrome and a girl with ADHD. Both of my children benefit from either educational accommodations or anti-discrimination policies, which exist thanks to federal legislation guaranteeing all U.S. students a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.” At its best, the time, resources and structures for our involvement in our son’s education vastly outstrip those made available to more typical learners, which honestly is fine. Equity is not built on sameness but on need. Still, every child should have a right to a free public education that meets their needs and every parent should have both the resources and the right to make sure it happens. Instead, the GOP “parents’ rights” bills are part of an ongoing and intensifying conservative effort—alongside private school voucher expansion and broad defunding initiatives — to attack the existence of public schools.
At an even more basic level, parents’ rights must include the right to become a parent, and to raise the children one has in safety. That understanding is a core principle of the reproductive justice movement, which, as the activist collective SisterSong explains, broadened the notion of reproductive rights to include “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”
In my own networks, disability history reveals the ways that systemic discrimination erodes these basic parenting rights. Disabled people of all genders, but especially disabled women of color, have long been victimized by eugenic regimes eager to sterilize those they deemed unfit. That’s not just an artifact from an ugly past. The 1927 U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting eugenic involuntary sterilization, Buck v. Bell, has never been overturned. At least 36 states, according to the National Research Center for Parents with Disabilities, can use the mere existence of a disability as a justification to deny parental rights or take children away from disabled parents. Outside the legal system, medical institutions continue to presume incompetency when it comes to parenting. For example, Rebecca Cokley, who led the National Council on Disability during the Obama administration, told a story about the assumption that she would want her tubes tied after the birth of her second child: Apparently two was, for her doctor, the maximum number of kids a disabled person had the right to parent. Bodily autonomy must be core to our understanding of parental rights.
But the same principle also complicates those rights, because all these notions of parents’ rights exist alongside rights that children hold too — including their right to autonomy. This is a messy space of contested ground and ongoing debates about how the sliding scale of autonomy changes as children grow up and parents’ control gradually diminishes. Republicans today are using that complicated debate to ban minors from reproductive and gender-affirming care not only without parental consent, but at all. The GOP feels no need to be consistent, so they can demand that parents have the right to prevent their children from having abortions or receiving gender-affirming care, while simultaneously blocking other parents from allowing their children to access either. A principled progressive stance must be more careful.
But it’s more than that. The right to parent in safe and sustainable communities requires other changes as well: paid parental leave, affordable healthcare and childcare, and — as one school tragedy after another makes clear — gun control.
It’s a fraught time to be a parent in America, though it’s never been easy and the burdens have never been equally shared across communities. But for me, anyway, it’s gotten progressively harder as the years have gone by. The other week, as I was driving my daughter and a friend to an arcade, they joked about escape routes they’d try in the event of a school shooting: how they could flee through the big windows in the band room, unless a shooter came in through that side. They were clearly using gallows humor to cope with the trauma of a lifetime of active shooter drills and news about school shootings. I did not cope as well, and had to ask them to stop. The following week came news of the latest school shooting, in Nashville, Tennessee.
American conservatives like to claim fundamental rights for their movement, casting themselves on the side of family, faith and freedom. We can’t just cede the ground. A focus on parental rights alone won’t fix the gun violence, climate change, mental health crises or anything else that’s troubling our kids, but as Republicans have shown, that language is a powerful rhetorical force in American politics. We should try to use that force for good. It’s been done before.
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