The Rayburn Reception Room of the United States Capitol is an addition to the historic building. Its walnut woodwork and marble mantles are new, but made in the image of designs now two centuries old. It’s a model of “what’s been” becoming “what is.” As House Speaker Kevin McCarthy delivered the Parents Bill of Rights from the room in March, it felt like the appropriate setting. “One thing we know in this country is education is the great equalizer,” McCarthy said. “And we want the parents to be empowered, and that’s what we’re doing today. That you have a say in your kids’ education. Not government, and not telling you what to do.”

If the Parents Bill of Rights passes the Senate, the law would fundamentally reorder the administration of public schools. It would give parents an unprecedented say over their children’s education from classroom curricula to library books; officially staking a claim in a generational issue that  has included movements to ban the teaching of evolution in the 1920s and to limit sexual education in the 1990s. 

“Whenever cultural norms or cultural values are at odds when it comes to parents, there’s more of an incentive to be involved in trying to shape the debates of curriculum or what’s being taught in schools,” says Melissa Deckman, chief executive officer of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit that researches the intersection of religion, culture and public policy. But the protected rights parents would have to shape curriculum under the Parents Bill of Rights could create a new landscape for education in America. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on who you ask.

The Parents Bill of Rights could create a new landscape for education in America. Whether that’s for better or worse depends on who you ask.

“Too often today, I think the K-12 system is wedging itself between the parent and the child and training our children in a worldview that’s antithetical to most parents’ values,” says Will Johnson, a parent of three children — 6, 8 and 10 years old — who attend public schools in Minnesota. The family moved from Colorado last year, though Johnson believes a new address is not enough to prevent what he sees as a faltering of the school system. “You have underperforming academics, you have politically charged activism, and parents too often being pushed away or kept out of the loop. And what you get is parents from across the state, banding together, becoming more involved in their schools, in their school boards, in their districts, and in states because they know that we can and must do better for our kids.”

Some parents, like Johnson, are rallying behind parental rights in an attempt to rid public schools of top-down political ideology. Others view the movement itself as politically motivated — stifling efforts to evolve classroom discussions meant to reflect a changing world at large. “From the top down you have political elites … sounding the drumbeat that things in public schools are not good,” says Deckman. “They’re talking about issues that are going to indoctrinate our children when it comes to issues about gender, or critical race theory, or sex education. I think what’s really brought this to a head right now is that we have a lot of political elites discussing these sorts of things.”

Yet even without the current political climate, it’s unlikely these concerns will cease anytime soon. Schools, after all, are entirely capable of indoctrination, largely because education and indoctrination are synonymous. The original use of the word “indoctrinate,” dating all the way back to 1620, simply means “to teach.” This leaves both sides stuck playing a decades-old game of tug-of-war with what gets indoctrinated into the public school system. But what happens when the rope breaks? “When we focus on politically-charged activism at the expense of academics,” Johnson says, “no one wins.”

Fear of indoctrinating children

Tina Descovich ran for a seat on the Brevard County, Florida, school board in 2016 on the foundation of parents rights. She didn’t know it at the time, but four years later the Covid-19 pandemic would thrust the country into quarantine and offer parents an unobstructed view of their children’s remote schooling. What they saw would bring more dissatisfied mothers and fathers to school board meetings than ever before. That culminated in Descovich co-founding Moms for Liberty, a prominent parental rights group with enough sway to advise Gov. Ron DeSantis on which educators to boot in Florida and flip school boards across the country to host conservative majorities.

Descovich’s school board campaign was inspired by standardized testing requirements. She advocated against federal oversight that created “a complete breakdown of communication between the state, lawmakers, the local school board and the parents.” And although testing does not share many similarities with the current movement’s key concerns like critical race theory or gender ideology, it’s founded on familiar ground: That children can be indoctrinated by what schools decide to — or decide not to — teach. “Ultimately, the majority of American children are in public schools,” she says. “And if we don’t let our voices be heard, if we aren’t part of the civic process of local education in our communities, education will continue to go downhill.”

But what is downhill to one parent may be on track to another. “I worry every day about what kids are thinking about this. … It’s really troubling to me because it’s not just the educators who are witnessing this, it’s people’s kids,” says Carolyn Foote, a retired Texas high school English teacher of 10 years and school librarian of 29 years. “As we try to build ever a more inclusive America, people are struggling with (asking themselves), ‘What does that look like?’ and, ‘What do I feel comfortable with?’”

The crux lies in how freedom is interpreted: as a freedom to be exposed to all perspectives or as a freedom to protect children from certain perspectives.

It could be standardized testing or all-gender bathroom policies. Or it could include — like in Johnson’s case, who cited an example of a teacher wearing a shirt that read “Stop pretending your racism is patriotism” — political messaging that appears in schools. The path forward is up for interpretation, it seems. But the most powerful force in shifting it is also the least partisan: fear of indoctrinating children. 

That fear is what led parents to oust teachers suspected of preaching communism in the Cold War era of the early 1950s and created Senate subcommittees dedicated to eradicating “subversive influences into the nation’s education system.” It even paved the way for developments like the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision in Engel v. Vitale to rule mandatory prayer in public schools unconstitutional.

Both liberals and conservatives fear the revocation of freedom, which is what gives the parental rights movement uncharacteristically broad appeal. The crux lies in how freedom is interpreted: as a freedom to be exposed to all perspectives or as a freedom to protect children from certain perspectives. 

“There are parents who are motivated by different things,” says David Bernstein, father of two high school seniors in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools and founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values, a nonprofit advocating against causes considered harmful to Jewish communities. “Some want their kids to learn conservative values. And others don’t want their kids to be indoctrinated — like me.” He details how one of his sons now feels uncomfortable asking questions about racism in the classroom and challenging the notion that all members of marginalized groups feel inherently oppressed, leaving no room for discussion. “I think it’s inimical to critical thinking when you tell somebody exactly what they must think about who has power, who has privilege, who are victims and who are oppressed. You are teaching them an ideology,” Bernstein says. “It’s a narrative that holds America ultimately in contempt.”

Through the late 19th century and through the mid-20th century, Native American boarding schools were considered acceptable education. These institutions forbid Indigenous languages, names and religions. Native students had their hair forcibly cut and were abused for practicing their own culture, stripping them of their identity and families — practices that are now illegal and considered morally abhorrent. Up until 1983, during the AIDS epidemic, it was wrongly believed that the virus was spread by nonsexual physical touch. Children were taught to stay far away from those infected, further ostracizing gay men who were once wrongly believed to be the only recipients. Today, the fact that American schools were faulty in these instances is held as an uncontested fact. It serves as a reminder that what is held as morally acceptable and truthful — to say, what admissible indoctrination looks like — is subject to change, time and time again. 

Irish philosopher Kieran Egan dissected this idea in his 2008 book “The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up.” In it, he writes: “Now we tend to be very acute at recognizing the ways in which ‘others’ indoctrinate their children, but we are largely oblivious to the forms of indoctrination we deploy ourselves; ‘they’ indoctrinate, ‘we’ educate.” The buzzwords that define this debate are nothing more than one-way mirrors. When searching for the source of indoctrination, we see others’ views as the problem. In Egan’s words, “We label as indoctrination those that are most in conflict with our own.”

Neither ideological “side” loses in the fight over public school curriculum when parents are presented with options.

Research shows that exposure to diverse perspectives could be vital in preparing students for American adulthood. A 2021 National Academy of Education report on Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse cited that the ability to respect multiple points of view and foster dialogue across differences is “not only essential for students to prepare for citizenship, adulthood, and active membership in communities, but is also essential for the functioning of democracy itself.”

Presenting parents with options

So how do we move forward to protect children while also allowing various perspectives to enrich American education and democracy? Bethany Bustamante Van Vleet, director of the online family and human development graduate program at Arizona State University, has found that neither ideological “side” loses in the fight over public school curriculum when parents are presented with options. She herself has had to call on different options as a mother of six by moving her kids from public to charter schools and back when she found it necessary. 

Most states offer the option to opt out of sexual education, and parents can opt their children out of school surveys from anywhere in the country. Students have options for prayer in public schools — so long as the practice is not mandated by higher-ups. The very fact that books can be petitioned to get taken off shelves and that school boards or state legislatures can continually impact curricula points to how malleable education is. When choices to opt in or out are threatened by legal quarreling, the real loser becomes the public school system. 

Schools across the country are already facing teacher shortages exacerbated by the pandemic. A National Education Association survey found last year that 55 percent of educators are considering leaving the profession earlier than they’d planned. A Government Accountability Office report also found last year that hundreds of thousands of teachers have already quit between 2019 and 2021. Those dips in numbers are worsened by the tensions around parental rights, and are projected to continue worsening as these efforts grow more widespread. “All the issues with book challenges and everything else going on, that’s all time not spent with kids teaching them stuff that prepares them to be good consumers of information in the future,” says Foote. “So it’s just been a very difficult environment.”

American education is upheld by its teachers and their relationships with their students. It’s a system that amounts to nothing without the people, places and perspectives that make learning possible. But it is not a rigid institution. As the world introduces new obstacles to schooling — a pandemic, a mass exodus of teachers, a battle against the idea of indoctrination  — it may also introduce new opportunities. Among them: a bolstered freedom of choice within the school system. Educators like Bustamante Van Vleet and Foote continue to hope that the right to choose will lead us to focus more on what children are learning, rather than simply what they are taught. 

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.