The Parent Movement Needs School Choice

Empowering parents to advocate and act
CDC, Unsplash
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After school closures dragged on and parents encountered more and more radical curriculum, bold parents are speaking up at school board meetings, writing letters, requesting meetings with district officials, and even running for school board. Will it help?

We’ve seen parents rise up before. Many of us remember parents’ visceral reactions to Goals 2000 during the Clinton Administration, “teaching to the test” concerns during President Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era, and the parental outrage over the Obama Administration’s national standards and Common Core curriculum. While working at the state government level, I watched parents get the attention of governors and state legislators. We’ve seen local school boards flip– and then flip back. 

Unfortunately, an entrenched, activist education bureaucracy is not backing down. Our K-12 system remains callous to the needs of parents and students. Parent advocates often move on when their children graduate from high school, and the education bureaucracy is very skilled at reframing and renaming controversial initiatives, like Common Core, giving parents the impression they have triumphed. And so the education blob wins time and again. 

The edu-blob wins through such attrition but also by growing in size and strength. Over the last 20 years, public K-12 administrative staff has increased by 88%, while student enrollment only increased 8%. Inflation-adjusted public school funding has risen 152% since 1970 but teacher salaries have only increased by 8%.

During that period, progressive activists have solidified their hold on the education system. The organizations that pump gender ideology into classrooms, for example – GLSEN, Gender Spectrum, Advocates for Youth, Queer Kids, Planned Parenthood – are well-funded and entrenched. The teachers unions love them and the edu-crats fear them.

And, of course, left-leaning politicians funded by the activists, unions, and bureaucrats do their bidding. During the final Virginia gubernatorial debate last September, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe clearly stated his preference for government control over parental rights. In response to a question about his plans to force school districts to implement a state education policy, McAuliffe initially responded, “I like locals having input, but the state will always issue guidance, as we do, from the Department of Education.”

Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin said, “We must demand that (school districts) include parents in this dialogue. What we’ve seen over the course of the last 20 months is our school systems refusing to engage with parents.” Youngkin cited the concerns expressed by Virginia parents about sexually explicit books found in public school libraries. He said parents should be in charge of their kids’ education. 

McAuliffe tanked his campaign by responding, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision… I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

The debate exchange is well-known, but many may not know that it was inspired by a question about Virginia’s Model Policies for the Treatment of Transgender Students in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools. A state law passed in 2020 mandated that every Virginia school district implement this activist-drafted 27-page document, thus preventing local choice and parental input on this divisive issue.

The policies require teachers to address children by their ever-shifting pronouns and encourage schools to develop Gender Support Plans, or “action plans to support the student’s transition,” and consider reporting parents who affirm their child’s biological sex to Child Protective Services. Parents can’t stop districts from adopting these policies because state law requires district compliance.

Parents instinctively know that they should have a say in their children’s education. The state law in Virginia – and in many other states – codifies that fundamental right. But Governor Youngkin has not revoked or revised the state’s model transgender policies. Although he recently signed a letter to President Biden from 15 governors expressing concern that the Biden’s Administration proposed Title IX regulations will mandate radical gender ideology in all schools that receive federal funds, he has not addressed Virginia’s far-left gender policies. So Virginia parents desperate to protect their children are on their own.

Polls reveal that most people don’t want children to be bombarded with messages, books, and lessons pushing radical gender ideology. Parents want and deserve power over their children’s education, but education bureaucrats and unions hold all the power. Because of the size of these entrenched interests and their political sway, the parent movement simply isn’t sufficient. Parents must also be empowered with school choice options.

Ideally, states would follow Arizona’s lead, and create a universal education savings account program that gives parents the choice to access their child’s state education funding and use it for education-related expenses such as tuition, books, curriculum, tutoring, and therapies. Expanding eligibility and funding for the existing 65 state private school choice programs that exist in 31 states and Washington, DC, but currently only serve 600,000 students, is another worthy goal. 

Even if parents do not choose to participate, the existence of school choice programs with broad eligibility criteria reminds school districts that if they refuse to be accountable, responsive and transparent, parents can and will leave. Perhaps when significant enrollment drops result in budget cuts that force central office bureaucrats out of their very comfortable jobs, school districts and schools will wake up and realize that prioritizing gender ideologues and activists over parents and students was the wrong choice. 

Ginny Gentles
Ginny Gentles is the director of the Independent Women’s Forum’s Education Freedom Center.