Do you support parental rights?

I keep hearing suggestions that some candidates in this race support parental rights and others do not. I don’t think this is true—unless “parental rights” is code for something else.

Parents are parents. They have more rights (and responsibilities) than anyone could list.

The first time someone on Facebook asked me whether I’m in favor of “parental rights,” I was puzzled. What was she asking me? Parents’ rights to what? I had no idea. So I asked her to clarify. Her answer was something to the effect of: “Oh, you know very well what I mean. And I know I can cross you off my list.”

This was my notification that in this election season, “parental rights” is a code expression, a shibboleth, a dog whistle. Some people are using this phrase to send secret signals, to say things without saying them so they can deny having said them, and so that they don’t have to defend their ideas. This is how political code-speak/dog-whistling works.

Here are my attempts to translate.

Parental rights in general

What they say: We will stand up for parental rights!

What they want you to think: That they support your parental rights (and that I do not). And that if you elect them, they will give you whatever rights you think you have, or want to have. And they want you to think that if you elect me, I will try to deny your rights. None of this is true.

The reality: Every candidate in this race is a parent. Everyone agrees that parents have rights and responsibilities. School board did not give us these rights. School board cannot take them away. And school board cannot give all individual parents the sort of control over policy and curriculum that they imply they will give. There are processes and protocols for ensuring that the schools are respectful of consensus beliefs in the community. No individual parent (or school board member) has a “parental right” to micromanage administrators and teachers.

Public-health measures

What they say: We will give parents rights over their own children in health-related matters.

What they want you to think: They want you to think that the current school board forced your children to wear masks in school, and that if you elect them your children will not have to wear masks.

The reality: Nobody likes disease. Nobody likes inconvenient measures to prevent or stop the spread of disease. But disease is a reality, and inconvenient measures are sometimes needed. The public-health authorities are qualified and authorized to prescribe pandemic-control measures. School board has no legal right to cancel public-health mandates, and even if it were legal to thwart such measures, it would be unwise and immoral. No one has a “parental right” to let their kids cough or sneeze pathogens into the faces of teachers and other parents’ children.

Sex education

What they say: Our leftist educators are promoting immorality.

What they want you to think: That they support, and we oppose, whatever your own moral convictions regarding sexual conduct might be.

The reality: The new sex ed. curriculum approved by Cal Schools a few months ago is conservative. It promotes abstinence (waiting). Sex education is needed because our culture is flooded with porn and with incitements to all kinds of sexual activity. There is no widespread consensus on the morality of sexual activity in our society, but statistics show that on average people who call themselves conservative or Christian tend to behave about the same sexually as people who do not claim those labels, as do their children. The public schools have no business advocating for or against the morality of particular sexual behaviors, apart from questions established by law. They do, however, have a responsibility to teach our young people the basics of human anatomy and physiology related to sex. One important reason for doing so is harm prevention. Given that no matter what anyone advocates, large numbers of young people will engage in sexual exploration, it is best to give them information that will help them avoid getting pregnant, contracting diseases, and committing crimes. Parents have the right to exempt their kids from particular curriculum elements to which they object, but no group or individual has a “parental right” to make the schools fall silent or promote a particular morality, ideology, or religious perspective.

LGBTQ issues

What they say: Biology is being ignored. Pride flags and cat ears should be banned. Teachers are trying to talk students into transitioning to different genders.

What they want you to think: Being gay (or trans) is a perverse choice, and the schools are encouraging your kids to go in that direction. If you elect them, they’ll put a stop to it.

The reality: Every letter in LGBTQI stands for a reality. Some people are “born that way.” No amount of wishing, urging, punishing, or praying will change them. This is something that we know now, just as we know things about the age of the earth and evolution that were not formerly known. For many centuries queer people have been persecuted as willful deviants. Now, in the USA, public opinion and state and federal law recognize their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Recognizing those rights is not leftism. And it is not optional. Ongoing marginalization of and discrimination against LGBTQ young people pushes many into depression, various forms of acting out, homelessness, and suicide. Schools and teachers must ensure a welcoming and supportive environment for all our young people. Kids wearing cat ears may be acting out alienation and stress and may need understanding and help, not ridicule and persecution. No one has a “parental right” to make Cal Schools a hostile environment for LGBTQ kids.


For things like approving a new curriculum or hiring a superintendent, the district has policies and protocols. These include inviting input from parents. As a school board member, I will listen to parents, and I will be an advocate for good process. At school board meetings in 2021, I heard individual parents stand up and say to the school board: “We elected you, and you have to do what we want.” Statements like that reflect a misunderstanding not only of how representative democracy works but of how any functioning organization works. An arrangement whereby whichever individual or group speaks longest and loudest at a given meeting gets to dictate specific actions and decisions for the organization as a whole would yield chaos. I wonder whether people who say things like that have ever been employees of a well-run business, or members of a healthy church or community organization. We elect trustees whom we trust, and we communicate with them all along the way, and they carry the burden of having to decide what to do on the basis of laws, bylaws, their own good judgment, and their sense of the will of the community. Comments from individual parents and groups of parents—not only the ones who are bold enough to speak up un public meetings, but all parents—should shape their sense of the community. But a school board member doesn’t have to do whatever one particular parent or group demands. That is my understanding. Parents have a right to be heard and to have their thoughts taken seriously. And along with other community members, they will have a right to vote for school board members again next time.

Bottom line

Do I support parental rights? Of course. Also students’ rights and teachers’ rights. If you have some particular thing in mind, name it, and I’ll tell you whether I agree that it’s a parental right. But rights-talk isn’t my favorite way of talking about education. Rights-talk seems to presuppose, or intend to create, an adversarial situation. To me, the most important thing is that parents and teachers should see each other as—and work hard to really be—not opponents or competitors but partners in educating our young people.

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