Analysis: The Parents’ Rights Movement May Seem Tailor-Made for Republican Politics. But Homeschoolers Show That Might Not Be the Case

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Recent polling confirms that over the last year American parents have been worried about a lot, overwhelmed by online learning and fearful their children are falling behind. It seems Republicans channeled these emotions in Virginia and New Jersey in November’s elections, as polls show education mattered for many voters — the second most important issue in Virginia and third in New Jersey. Parents’ rights offered an effective rallying cry for those opposed to school closures, mask mandates and teaching about the history of racism. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has already announced plans to introduce a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

But Republicans, especially those who’ve got long-term plans to privatize schools, should be careful. The plasticity of parent rights as a political slogan could easily turn against the GOP in the future.

Homeschooling offers a useful comparison, historically framed as a school reform built around families by advocates using the same conservative language of parental rights and individual liberty, yet evolving of late to be a less predictable policy issue

For over 20 years, as homeschooling enrollment steadily grew toward 1 million and then 2 million students, Republican presidential candidates capitalized on this apparent alignment of values and politics. Starting with George W. Bush in 2000, homeschool families featured in the presidential campaign strategies of Mike Huckabee in 2008, Michele Bachmann in 2012 and Ted Cruz in 2016. Conservative movement leader Grover Norquist pointed to homeschoolers as a bloc of freedom-loving voters — disproportionately white, rural and Christian — whom Donald Trump could rely on to defeat Hillary Clinton.

Over that same period, however, homeschooling itself has been transformed. Internet technology has made it a viable option for more families, and public schools have become much more accommodating. Homeschooled students once were forbidden from taking an occasional class or competing on a school athletic team. Today, in many parts of the country, these prohibitions have been eliminated, and homeschool parents work together with district schools.

Public support for homeschooling is diversifying as well. There are more Black and Latino homeschool families than ever before, and the pandemic has spurred interest among parents who never would have considered homeschooling in the past. Over 1 in 10 households with children reported homeschooling last fall, according to the Census Bureau.

Once, the most active and vocal homeschoolers were conservatives, ready to arrive at state capitals to counter any perceived threat. Today, the consensus within this movement is not so solid. New advocacy organizations, like Secular & Decolonizing Homeschooling Resources and Connections, and more moderate approaches to homeschooling, like that offered by the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, have shifted the political terrain. And while a majority of homeschool parents supported Trump, the fact that 40 percent did not suggests these families are not all loyal partisans.

As homeschooling has become less predictable, so, too, is parents’ political direction, raising another historical precedent Republicans should pay attention to. Thirty years ago, the Republican governor of New Jersey stripped local control of schools from the elected school board in Newark, a source of power for Black residents. Several years later, when Gov. Chris Christie’s superintendent imposed a major school restructuring plan on the city’s schools, New Jersey’s Parents Unified for Local School Education — PULSE — organized to oppose the further erosion of local control. PULSE and its allies won, control was ceded back to Newark and in 2020 the city held its first school board election in 25 years

For Republican operatives, convinced a vocal parent rights movement is a step toward privatization, the lessons of Newark’s powerful families suggest otherwise. Another parent-centered group, Project Ready, has forged bonds between public and charter school parents across New Jersey and recently helped register 1,000 new voters in Newark. Research shows the confrontation with state Republicans ultimately drew parents closer to teacher unions, not further apart.

There’s little doubt various aspects of education and schooling will dominate upcoming elections, but whom this favors remains unclear. Just as other family groups flex their political muscle — like the Sierra Club’s Climate Parents, which advocate against climate change, and Everytown, which pushes for gun control — parent anger over education may be channeled to elect as many Democrats as Republicans in 2022.

Heath Brown, Ph.D., is associate professor of public policy at the City University of New York Grad Center and John Jay College, and the author of “Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State,” published by Columbia University Press.

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