Issue 61, Spring 1996

A divisive campaign is snowballing around the country. It wrongly assumes that educators and parents are adversaries and books are the enemy. Watch for this campaign in your state; it’s a camouflage for censorship!

In this excerpt from Church & State, Barry Lynn says this movement would bring schoolbooks with blank pages.

…Proponents of something called the “Parental Rights Amendment” are trying to amend all state constitutions and eventually the federal Constitution.

The proposed amendment states: “The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.”

….What’s wrong with this amendment? On first reading, it certainly sounds innocuous. As a parent, I want my rights…Why the fuss, then?

The Religious Right insists that public school officials have some nefarious scheme for subverting “parental rights,” primarily by choosing curriculum and other material that are at odds with their moral values. The bottom line of the Parental Rights Amendment is to give parents active in Religious Right groups a type of constitutional “trump card” to override any decision public schools make that they don’t like.

How would this work in practice? The Massachusetts legislature gave us one example two years ago when it considered a “parental rights” bill that required two weeks’ written notice to parents whenever the children were to be involved in any teaching or activity deemed “controversial.” These were not just the hot button topics of homosexuality and abortion, but everything from discussions of values to death and marriage. Worse, if parents did not affirmatively “opt in” every time — actually filling out a form noting it would be all right for their children to be exposed to these topics — their children were barred from participation.

Can you imagine the chaos this would spawn, as teachers abandoned PTA meetings and course planning to pursue “wayward” parents who hadn’t even received the permission slip? (How many parents stumble on last month’s homework, lunch news, “important notices” — and occasional sandwiches — while cleaning out their children’s backpacks?) What would actually happen, of course, would be that many teachers would steer clear of these subjects so that they wouldn’t have to go through the burdensome process. (By the way, how does one teach history or literature without discussion of values or death?)

I believe that is precisely what the supporters of “parental rights” have in mind. They want to parent their kids and everybody else’s. By objecting to material, they hope they will cause fewer teachers to even try to deal with controversy. You can imagine schools where every parent objects to some piece of a textbook, so that all that remains are books with blank pages.

You’ll hear Religious Right activists railing about other claimed usurpations of “parental rights,” everything from condom distribution to social service agencies intruding into parental disciplinary decisions. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is what this amendment is about. It is about our public schools….

Twenty states, from Georgia to Colorado, can expect legislative battles over the “Parental Rights Amendment” in the coming year. Nobody wants to take away the primary right or responsibility for parenting from parents. On the other hand, we have to have some degree of faith in the quality of work that professional educators do. The truth is, as parents we often fail to keep up on the latest information on everything from geology to (gasp) human sexuality. We don’t need our ignorance, or that of our neighbors, to have an undue influence on the course of public education.

From Church & State, February 1996.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.