While parental rights have become a top issue for U.S. Republicans, a similar movement is growing in Canada
House Republicans passed an education bill last month emphasizing parents' rights in the classroom, marking Congress's foray into an increasingly powerful U.S. movement that seeks to expand parent oversight of how gender and race are taught in public schools.
Though the bill is unlikely to pass in a Democrat-controlled Senate, parental rights has emerged as a top issue for Republicans ahead of the 2024 elections, with a tidal wave of legislation having been passed or introduced in two dozen states this year alone.
Critics say the innocuous-sounding term is being weaponized to usher in laws that target trans youth and their families, a strategy with a long history in the U.S. public education system.
"This movement is not taking all parents into consideration," said Debi Jackson, the parent of a trans child and trans rights activist in Kansas City, Mo.
Jackson's 15-year-old child came out as transgender when they were four. Jackson pulled them out of public school after their social transition, which included changing their pronouns, was met with hostility by other parents.
"My right is to have my child be accepted," said Jackson. "My right is for your child to learn about my child and to not think my child is a mistake, or is less than, or should not be treated with respect."
While the parental rights lobby has become a force in U.S. politics, recent school board elections in this country show that a similar movement is burgeoning in Canada.
‘I didn't know that I could fight for my child,’ says parent of trans youth
Debi Jackson, the parent of a trans teenager in Kansas City, Mo., on why she became a trans rights activist and why the parental rights movement doesn’t reflect her experience.
A wave of legislation
The Republican Party's latest efforts to make parental rights a legislative lodestar began in 2020, when COVID-19 had children learning from home with parents looking over their shoulders.
"There was a lot of grievance around education — as a result of the pandemic, as a result of school closures and mask mandates and vaccine mandates," said Jack Schneider, an education historian and a professor at University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Those complaints intensified in 2021, during heated school board meetings where parents had disagreements about book bans and critical race theory, an academic framework based on the idea that racism is inherently embedded into American society, including its institutions, laws and public policy.
Politicians took note. Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin cruised to victory on the issue of parental rights alone during his 2021 gubernatorial campaign; Florida governor Ron Desantis — expected to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024 — has made parental rights a core item on his agenda.
Last year, 85 parental rights bills were introduced in 26 states, according to FutureEd, a Georgetown University think tank that tracks U.S. education legislation. Four months into this year, that number stands at 62 bills in 24 states.
Many of them focus on gender and sexuality. States like Texas, Iowa and Kentucky, for example, have all introduced or passed bills sharing provisions that would limit or outright ban instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools at all grade levels.
Parental rights groups like Moms for Liberty — a self-styled grassroots political action committee with close ties to the Republican Party — have reportedly funded legions of anti-trans school board trustees across the country.
Other groups, like Parents Defending Education, are actively tracking school districts that allow personnel to keep a child's gender identity hidden from parents.
"The kind of spectre of parental rights often emerges in relationshipto expanding conversations about sexuality and gender in schools," said Jen Gilbert, an associate professor at York University in Toronto.
Gilbert, who researches LGBTQ issues in education, said that parental rights isn't so much about parents as a group as it is a "conservative strategy to limit the scope of conversations that schools might have with young people about sex and gender."
Other provisions that impact trans students vary across the bills. The Texas bill mandates schools to notify parents of a child's changed gender identity within 24 hours, should a teacher or administrator be made privy to that information.
Some of the bills block other gender-affirming policies, forbidding school staff from addressing trans students by their preferred pronouns, or barring trans students from using the bathroom of their choice.
LGBTQ organizations, teachers unions and parents groups have criticized the federal and state legislation, some saying that the laws force schools to "out" trans students to their parents and to the wider school community, potentially making them vulnerable to abuse.
The bill would have "devastating consequences for LGBTQ students and their ability to learn in safe, affirming classroom environments all across the country," Casey Pick, the director of law and policy at LGBTQ youth organization The Trevor Project, wrote in a statement.
A long history of parental rights
Schools "are, symbolically and literally, places where the future is being made," said the historian Schneider, which is why they have long functioned as a battleground for culture wars in the U.S.
The fact that most parents don't walk into their child's school on an ordinary day presents "this really ripe opportunity for a kind of cynical politics that would position schools as sites of indoctrination," he added.
The U.S. has a long history of parental rights going back as far as the early 20th century's progressive education movement. During the first and second Red Scare, and again during the 1970s, concerns about communist influence and homosexuality in schools were hot button issues.
"It's no coincidence that schools were used as a way of trying to frighten people, because schools then, as now, are one of the most pervasive institutions, the widest-reaching kind of organization we have in the United States and Canada," said Schneider.
Former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, whose administration launched a massive reform of the country's public education system, invoked parents' rights in a 1983 speech about communism and morality in schools.
A contemporary version of the parental rights movement emerged in 1993, when a New York City school executive introduced a "rainbow curriculum" that included children's books with gay characters, such as Heather Has Two Mommies. Parents angered by the lesson plan organized city-wide protests that led to the executive's firing.
A few years later, Colorado proposed that a parental rights amendment be added to the state constitution. A New York Times article about the legislation called parental rights "the hot new issue of the religious right for the late 1990s."
Canadian movement will be 'a lot bigger' in 10 years
The movement isn't confined to our neighbours down south.
"We think of it as a U.S. thing, but if you go back to the controversies about sex education during [2014 to 2018] in Ontario, it was very much framed as a problem with parental rights," said Gilbert, of York University.
Recent skirmishes at Canadian school boards "point to the ways … in which conservative parents see themselves as a political lobby and are using the platform of parental rights."
Several Canadian parental rights organizations have emerged in recent years. Action4Canada, a COVID-19 conspiracy group, did not respond to a request for comment. Blueprint For Canada, which opposes gender-inclusive sex education, declined a phone interview with CBC News.
Canada's parental rights movement will be "a lot bigger 10 years from now," said Marc Vella, the president and founder of ParentsVoice B.C., a parental rights political party that ran 28 trustee candidates in the province's fall school board elections.
Some candidates who ran under its banner opposed the province's sexual orientation gender identity (SOGI) policies, which the province says foster inclusivity towards LGBTQ students.
"I think a lot of people feel like all the social justice-related stuff in schools has gone too far," he said, later adding, "Are we doing that at a detriment to all the regular, kind of, what I think of as the basics of education?"
LGBTQ parents and parents of trans youth are forgotten by that framing of parental rights, said Gilbert. The latter group is especially affected by the current wave of legislation in the United States.
"You're really trampling on the rights of those young people's parents to take care of their children in the way that they see fit," she said. "Somehow, their rights to care for their children don't count."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jenna Benchetrit is a web and radio journalist for CBC News. She works primarily with the entertainment team and occasionally covers business and general assignment stories. A Montrealer based in Toronto, Jenna holds a master's degree in journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University. You can reach her at email@example.com.
With files from CBC News
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