Jose Oliva, Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, and U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL). (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Florida GOP Is Using 'Parental Rights' to End Public Education as We Know It

It’s about ending public schools as we know them, as the single-most powerful engine of pluralism and unity in America.


The Florida Legislature would have you think it invented parental rights last year when it passed the Parents' Bill of Rights. It did not. Most of those rights have been in the books for decades. The ploy aims bigger: to continue the GOP's assault and destruction of public education. Parents are being weaponized into mercenary service by a legislature that needs docile foot soldiers who have no clue they're being manipulated. Making them look like heroes is part of the scam. The parental bill of rights is intended to bring out the worst in parents. It's doing an awesome job.

This isn't about rights. It's not about parents. It's certainly not about children, and it damn well isn't about education. It's about ending public schools as we know them, as the single-most powerful engine of pluralism and unity in.

I'm not referring to the majority of parents who are too busy to attend circus-like school board meetings or harass teachers and principals. Those majorities know to trust teachers to do the job they're trained to do better than any one or two parents can. They know it's schools' job to open their child's mind beyond the confines of home.

Speaking personally for a moment: I have a modicum of education-clearly not enough to know not to use the word "modicum," but enough to know that nothing I can do singly or with my wife could remotely approach the variety and expertise of the dozens of faculty members who've taught my two children in schools. That I may have had differences of opinion or methods or even pedagogy with some of them is natural, and irrelevant.

We did some homeschooling when they were younger. But at school, my children's faculty were in charge, not me. I didn't send them to school to have more of home but-to quote the gospel according to Cleese-for something completely different. Metaphorically speaking, why limit them to a bookshelf when they could have an entire library, assuming not so metaphorically that library hasn't been raided by the school board's Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. I trusted the faculty to do the right thing. If teachers made errors at times, as I very much hope they did (they did not disappoint), that was part of the deal. My children were taught by human beings, not by Magic Kingdom animatronics. The trust was implicit the moment I registered them at school, as was my duty to store the chip on my shoulder in one of those innumerable self-storage facilities around town.

I'm pretty sure the majority of parents are equally trusting. Public education has its challenges, most of them lawmakers' doing. The occasional transgender bathroom, queer book or Black Lives Matter passage in an English textbook are not among those challenges. They're part of what's working in schools. Unless you hear it from the loudmouthed minority of know-nothing knowitalls who asphyxiate their child's intellect or identity at home then turn up at school to accuse anyone who might be letting in some air.

Those are the parents to whom the GOP dedicated its bill of rights, the parents more interested in McGuffey era doctrine than 21st century education, parents who glorify the three R's while calling for banning books, whitewashing discussion and firing teachers. They're the parents who don't know the difference between a value and a prejudice, between pluralism and tribalism: parents who object to schools fostering acceptance, broadening values, celebrating differences, unless they're the ones being accepted, unless it's their values, their differences that are exalted, however parochial or reactionary. And of course they're the parents who place their own rights above those of children, a horrifying capsizing of ethical norms.

Those are the GOP's shock troops. The Parents' Bill of Rights is their consummate manifesto.

It relies on an attractive but ridiculous assumption: that parents are infallible. Parents can be as toxic to their children as a home environment can be stultifying. If it weren't for the leavening effect of education, and particularly public education, we'd still be in the dark ages. Parents may be programmed to raise children biologically. It's not especially challenging. It doesn't follow that they're programmed to raise them lovingly, morally, intellectually and culturally.

Lawmakers know that. After all, they wouldn't be where they are if we didn't have so many parenting screw-ups. So the flattery of the parental bill of rights is a lie. It assumes that parents know best, when they know least. But its intention is strategic. It turns parents into the GOP's insurrectionists. Who better than parents who know next to nothing about education to throw against education's supposed ramparts while fueling the mythology of schools as fortresses that have snubbed parental involvement all these years. If only.

The bill of rights is the GOP's trojan horse. It bring parents into the schools to pursue the ultimate aim: the continued demolition of public education. Florida Republicans have been doing an excellent job of it for a couple of decades, using various means.

On a per-pupil funding basis, Florida is the seventh-stingiest state in the nation. Democrats did a pitiful job at it too when they controlled government, though Republicans have accelerated the drain. Today's funding total includes the money siphoned off by charters, as it did not previously. It's another weapon in the demolition derby. Some charters are excellent. Most are failures. They hide mediocrity behind the state's indifference to standards and reporting requirements. They close more frequently than bad restaurants. Look at Flagler. With one exception, it's a graveyard of charters.

Then there's vouchers, the abuse of our tax dollars to pay for students' private and religious education, compounding the unconstitutional disgrace with tax breaks to corporations-nearly $900 million worth this year alone. Imagine what public schools could do with that if it weren't swindled from them (and us taxpayers).

Finally, there's the sham of school choice, again intended to flatter parents into thinking they can choose their kids' education path the way they might choose between lanes at fast food joints, when in fact the choice formula is another way to pit schools against each other while undermining their ability to plan for any kind of stability in enrollment and absolving the state from ensuring equitable funding across the board.

But all those attacks have been at the periphery. The Huns of public education needed their own militias to destroy from within. That's the genius of the parental bill of rights.

Most of it is a redundant restatement of laws and procedures already in place, whether it's allowing you to pull your kid from any health class where the word "vagina" might be spoken, allowing your anti-vax phobias to prevail, giving you access to your kid's records or to any and every instructional material in circulation. None of this is new, much as hysterical school board members might want to make you think otherwise.

But while the Bill of Rights magnifies the privacy and autonomy of parents, it gives parents the right to violate that very privacy and autonomy where it counts most at school: between students and teacher. It breaks that trust and imposes a Stasi-like surveillance system that is as anathema to academic inquiry and personal growth as those cameras and microphones the legislature wants to shackle on teachers in classrooms. Just as the same lawmakers want to reduce Florida's women to "host bodies" for pregnancies, to use Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva's vulgar words, they want to reduce teachers to robotic dispensers of party-line civics and plantation-era morality. Teachers who violate the rules will be punished like rule-breaking students. No wonder there's a teacher exodus. It's just what the GOP wants. Destruction from within.

This isn't about rights. It's not about parents. It's certainly not about children, and it damn well isn't about education. It's about ending public schools as we know them, as the single-most powerful engine of pluralism and unity in America. The GOP has the legislature. It has the governor's mansion. It has the judiciary. It has the chambers of commerce. It'll never get the universities. But there is no bigger prize than the schools. That victory, Florida's biggest defeat, is now in sight.

© 2023 Pierre Tristam