What Are the Limits of Parents Rights in Education?

What are the limits of parents rights in education? Nathan Hoffman (ExcelinEd) and Jonathan Friedman (PEN America) debate.
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Experts Debate How Much Control Parents Should Have in School Curricula

By Nathan Hoffman, Director of State Policy and Legislative Strategy, ExcelinEd, and Jonathan Friedman, Director of Free Expression and Education, PEN America

What are the limits of parents rights in education? Nathan Hoffman (ExcelinEd) and Jonathan Friedman (PEN America) debate.

Parents Rights Should Not End at the School Door

By Nathan Hoffman – Director of State Policy and Legislative Strategy, ExcelinEd

In America, parents have sweeping rights and authority over the affairs of their children. They do not relinquish these rights when their children enter the schoolhouse doors. Yet until recently, parents were largely unaware of what took place after their child was dropped off at the schoolhouse doors for the day. The pandemic changed all of that. It gave parents a front-row seat in their child’s classroom. And many didn’t like what they saw and heard.

A very public and impassioned debate has ensued in communities across the country with parents voicing their concerns and frustrations to school board members and other elected officials. As a result, some have suggested these parents are nothing more than bad actors espousing racism, homophobia, etc. The problem we have here has less to do about race and the like as much as it is a reaction to boundaries that many parents rightly feel have been crossed. And as a matter of public policy, more can be done to ensure parents are part of the education process and their rights are acknowledged, without overburdening the K–12 education system.

Lines Crossed, Parents Rights Overlooked

The expressed and purposeful inclusion of parents in what their child sees and reads in the classroom is not new. Parents have long been consulted about sensitive material that may be covered in the classroom and there has typically been an opt-out ability. As the debate about what is considered sensitive continues to evolve based on changing cultural norms, this open dialogue must continue. 

The role of a parent is not simply to ensure the child makes it to school every day, to participate in events, and otherwise be quiet. It is more than reasonable for parents to have the expectation and, frankly, the right to know not just about the book fairs and the family night fundraisers, but to have the inside track on the most important responsibility of a government school: classroom education. 

It’s been said that sunlight is the best of disinfectants, and as it relates to government schools, transparency is that sunlight. Schools should be responsible for posting curricula that can be inspected in a reasonable manner. Schools should also be responsible for ensuring their classroom teachers maintain a relationship with the parents of their classroom. Parents should be informed about what will be taught, why it’s being taught (e.g., it aligns with a state educational standard), and what is required to complete to earn academic credit.

Checks and Balances Would Add Value to Parental Involvement

This kind of transparency is an important first step that will further empower parents and curtail temptations to veer into sensitive and questionable material. Still, it is only part of the equation. Parents must also have reasonable authority within their child’s school, and especially the classroom. This does not mean parents should wholly control what material is taught in the classroom. It means there should be checks and balances that appropriately value parental input and engagement.

Such a relationship would be similar to the intended relationship between our branches of government. Each has a level of authority that keeps the others in check. The legislative branch is less likely to pass something that the president will veto or the courts deem unconstitutional. Likewise, the president is less likely to propose something the legislature will turn down or would be deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Such a system is intended to force moderation with consistent conversation and feedback loops. 

Increasing reasonable parents rights in education will lead to a better relationship with the school system. More importantly, parental power should be increased because parents don’t shed their ultimate authority and responsibility for their child at the schoolhouse door. Government schools are merely temporary stewards meant to do one thing: provide quality education. Anything further may cross boundaries parents deem irresponsible, which leads to further institutional distress within the government school system if left unchecked. 

What are the limits of parents rights in education? Nathan Hoffman (ExcelinEd) and Jonathan Friedman (PEN America) debate.

Public Schools Must Mirror Democracy: All Voices Matter

By Jonathan Friedman – Director of Free Expression and Education, PEN America

At their best, public schools in the United States serve to produce a literate and informed citizenry imbued not only with knowledge but with a spirit of inquiry. This aspiration has long anchored American educational institutions, known worldwide for their focus on discussion and debate, critical thinking, and the liberal arts. 

In schools, the liberty of learning and the freedom to read have been part and parcel of our democratic commitments. Diversity of thought has been the core of our pluralistic identity, and free expression—one of the central tenets of American democracy—is an essential value that ensures both the quality of our children’s education and the ability of our schools to prepare them to become engaged citizens in an increasingly complex world. Today these ideals are in jeopardy.

Opposition From One Shouldn’t Force Change For All

There is no question that parents have a central role in guiding, supporting, nurturing, and educating their children. But increasingly, we’ve seen a so-called “parents rights” movement seek to elevate any individual parent’s beliefs or preferences over the rights of all other parents. That’s a very different notion and it represents a profound threat to the ability of schools to fulfill their fundamental mission.

Schools can and do allow for parental input and engagement. When parents request more information about what their children are learning and more involvement in the educational process, schools and teachers should (and often do!) welcome their collaboration.

The problem isn’t whether parents should be involved in rearing their children; it’s whether our public schools can function in an à la carte manner, where individual parents are able to determine school curricula for all children based on their personal views of what is appropriate or acceptable for their children to learn.

Legislative proposals associated with the current parents rights movement often sound neutral, but they go far beyond channels of healthy communication. For example, some give individual parents new powers to challenge schools and curricula or establish penalties for teachers. We already know what this looks like in practice. Right now, in many parts of the country, individual parents are demanding the removal of books from schools they find unfavorable. And in district after district, it’s usually one individual’s objections that narrows access to literature for everybody else.

Encouraging a Variety of Classroom Perspectives Is a Democratic Principle

On the whole, this approach to public schools risks rolling back our commitments to democracy and pluralism. Furthermore, it may produce a kind of lowest common denominator education, in which schools can only teach what is agreed on by every parent in a community. 

There will always be debates about what schools teach and how. The reality is that there is no simple solution to these questions. But in the United States, it has been an abiding principle of our democracy to side with free speech over those who wish to restrict it. The freedom to learn, the freedom to read, and the freedom to think are inextricably bound. 

Do our public schools always live up to these ideals? Do people of different faiths, political ideologies, races, and ethnicities all feel welcome in our schools and free to engage in open inquiry, debate, and democracy? They may not. But the solution should be greater engagement and collaboration among public schools’ many stakeholders. Nobody should want schools narrowed to one ideological vision. Indeed, the presence of diverse perspectives and narratives is one of the core values of our education system. By engaging with ideas and beliefs different from their own young people are better prepared to meet the challenges of a democratic citizenry.

Preventing students from learning about the real world won’t protect them from it. It will only sow distrust and skepticism about the value of achieving the best result through competing ideas, the very concept that has shaped our democracy. 

Our public schools must mirror the democracy in which we all hope to live. They are the incubators of future citizens. We owe it to the rising generation to create this model of education. They don’t deserve a chilled environment where teachers are unable to speak honestly for fear of upsetting any one parent.

Public Schools Have Overstepped on Parents Rights

By Nathan Hoffman – Director of State Policy and Legislative Strategy, ExcelinEd

The history of the public school system in America is rooted in a 19th-century fear about the growing number of Catholics coming to America. Public schools were created as a vehicle through which the dominant religious class (Protestants) could educate students about views they found acceptable. They aimed to root out Catholicism by teaching a “better” belief system. 

This principle—that the views of one group should dominate—has again found its way to the front of the classroom. Classroom control is the central element of debate about the nation’s public school system. It is a farce to believe that public schools are neutral. It is difficult to avoid injecting personal beliefs into the classroom, and ignoring them during policy decision-making is equally challenging.  

Our public school system is government run. Families in many communities can’t opt out unless they can afford private school tuition or a mortgage in a different community. Therefore, the public school system must exercise caution and restraint in what is taught beyond the basic curriculum. Neither the public school system nor actors within it should have the right to determine what is moral, just, right, etc. These are questions better left to broader society and parents. 

Today, strife in our public schools isn’t because a single parent has voiced concerns. It’s because large groups of parents—some vociferous and some restrained—believe public schools have overstepped their bounds. Inserting a healthy dose of transparency into the system and providing meaningful opportunities for parental involvement is not only a good thing but will lower the temperature of this debate.

Intense Scrutiny Limits Classroom Effectiveness

By Jonathan Friedman – Director of Free Expression and Education, PEN America

Transparency in our public schools serves everybody; that’s precisely why we already have it. The federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, in place since 1978, gives parents the right to inspect their children’s educational materials. And many parents review curricula, attend school board meetings, and speak with teachers.

None of that is being proposed in today’s so-called parents rights movement. Rather, what’s on the table are ideas like video cameras in every classroom or the creation of online portals to facilitate microscopic scrutiny of every handout, book, poem, and lesson plan used by teachers at any minute of any day. That’s not healthy transparency. It’s a set of tools designed to make it easier for anyone with an ax to grind to challenge and imperil public education. And it has much more to do with intimidating teachers than improving student learning. 

The heavy-handed tactics being proposed or enacted will only further divide communities. When one parent is empowered to remove hundreds of books from a classroom library, we cross the line from healthy collaboration into disproportionate control over school curricula. This equates to the imposition of personal beliefs on the entire classroom. Furthermore, it risks breaking apart the bonds of trust and collaboration between parents, teachers, and school officials that have made public schools effective.

Parents used to have good-faith conversations with teachers regarding their concerns about classroom teaching. Now they are encouraged to go straight to school boards or legislatures to demand that instructional materials be passed through their own ideological strainer. That will ultimately stifle any space for healthy debate, compromise, and democracy.

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Nathan Hoffman
Director of State Policy and Legislative Strategy at ExcelinEd

Nathan Hoffman has spent the better part of a decade crafting and advocating for K–12 education policy reforms that expand opportunity and increase quality across the country. He's worked for state-based and national non-profits, including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Empower Illinois, and the American Federation for Children.

Friedman J headshot
Jonathan Friedman
Director of Free Expression and Education at Pen America

Jonathan Friedman is the director of free expression and education at PEN America, where he oversees advocacy, analysis, and outreach to educational communities and academic institutions. He served as lead author on its 2019 report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America, and its digital Campus Free Speech Guide. Friedman has published research on higher education, taught courses at NYU and Columbia University, and facilitated workshops at dozens of colleges and universities on free speech, diversity, and inclusion. He holds an MA and Ph.D. in international education from NYU, and was a 2019-2020 fellow of the UC National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement. 

1 comment

Blair Christensen May 30, 2023 at 2:19 pm

Parental involvement has always been the #1 indicator of student success. That means that parents need access to all the educational materials their students are given so they can assist where needed and follow up to make sure assignments are completed and turned in on time. This should be a good faith effort by the teacher to work with parents and not try to hide anything that goes on in the classroom.

There are some topics which are better left in the home, however. One can have a good discussion about the Founding Fathers, but discussions over whether one prefers the 1619 project to the 1776 project are political discussions best left for public debate: they don’t belong in the classroom (barring college). Same with questions about sexuality – which especially isn’t appropriate in any classroom under high school. No exceptions. Sexually-themed material, as well, should similarly be restricted to high school libraries and clearly marked as such (in its own section). Defenders of these materials argue that this amounts to discrimination or banning, but when the content of those books can’t be read openly at a school board meeting, it’s pretty clear that it is the content itself – and those who advocate for it – which is the real problem.

PS – America is a _Republic_ – not a democracy. The Founding Fathers specifically rejected a democracy because all historical examples quickly folded under the weight of mob rule. We elect _representatives_ and grant them power to oversee things, then we periodically review their actions and hold them accountable at the ballot box. Rights emanate from the People – not government diktats.


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