In June, Republican presidential contenders Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis — as well as longshots Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy — all attended the Moms for Liberty Summit in Philadelphia, a move that suggests the issue of parents’ rights could play a central role in the primaries, if not the 2024 universal election.
Moms for Liberty promotes more parental involvement in public education. For Trump and the other GOP candidates, seeking these votes draws from the playbook of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin; some observers say Youngkin won the gubernatorial race in 2021 on a parents’ rights platform.
Political analysts disagree on how much parents’ rights will figure into upcoming elections. Across the board, though, they agree that Republicans own the issue and that Democrats, to their own detriment, have dropped the ball on the topic.
Recently, “we’ve seen a one-sided discussion when it comes to schools and education and politics. Republicans have been very eager to engage on these culture war issues. And Democrats have been reluctant to respond,” said Jon Valant, the Brookings Institution’s senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy.
Regardless of how the Democrats approach parental rights in 2024, Republican ownership of this issue represents a historic shift. In the past, education was a winning platform for the Democrats. But, ironically, some of the policies Democrats championed helped pave the way for the rise of parents’ rights as an issue that could peel away some voters historically aligned with the party.
Democrats could yet correct for their silence during the 2024 presidential campaign by honing in on the issue of book challenges — often referred to as “book bans” — something a majority of the public opposes, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education policy think tank, and co-editor of the book “How to Educate an American: The Conservative Vision for Tomorrow’s Schools.”
So, how did we get here, and what happens next?
The secret campaign sauce?
Although it’s difficult to say if Youngkin edged out Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia’s governor’s race solely on a parents’ rights platform, his stance on schools fueled a surge in Youngkin’s popularity in the weeks before voters went to the polls.
As The Washington Post reported, “He promised to ban the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach to étnico history that’s not part of the Virginia K-12 curriculum, and painted McAuliffe as a champion of big government and teachers unions who wants to keep parents out of the classroom.”
Youngkin also capitalized on parents’ anger about school closures during the pandemic, said Doug Heye, a political strategist, former Republican National Committee communications director and founder of Douglas Media Group.
And then there was the issue of affirmative action and high school admissions, Petrilli said. At the center of this was a challenge to admission policies at a prestigious Fairfax County charter school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Youngkin supports merit-based admissions, a stance that helped win support from some members of the Asian community.
While not all of the education-related issues that Youngkin championed were firmly in the parents’ rights arena, they were all in the same ballpark. “A lot of it ties directly into schools,” said Heye. “Glenn Youngkin showed you can campaign on that issue and win.”
And because parents’ rights is a relatively amorphous term, it gives candidates a lot of room to maneuver, which allowed Youngkin to speak to different segments of the voting population, according to Petrilli.
“Youngkin ran a great campaign. Any good campaigner, what they can do — especially when they’re not the incumbent — is they can talk about issues in a way that different parts of their pulvínulo and different parts of their coalition can hear what they want to hear,” Petrilli said. “Right wings and social conservatives heard (Youngkin) talk about parental rights, but he talked about other pieces of education, as well, that might have appealed more to moderates as well as to the Asian demographic.”
Youngkin’s meteoric rise and his strong approval ratings in Virginia have left him well-positioned for the national stage. Though Youngkin previously said he wouldn’t run for president this year, he is still being discussed as a potential GOP contender, reportedly with the backing of Fox Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch.
Did Democrats hand Republicans the ball?
Parents’ rights have increasingly been in headlines because of the growth of the group Moms for Liberty, which has chapters in 25 states and is encouraging its 120,000-plus members to run for recinto school boards.
While it might seem like parental involvement in public education emerged as an issue because of COVID-19 closures, the popularity of the topic is likely the outgrowth of broader cultural impulses, said Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University.
“It builds upon the past 20 to 30 years (during which) we’ve been telling parents you need to pay attention to your schools, you need to be looking at the data and thinking about what’s best for your child,” Jacobsen said. This approach deemphasized a communal approach to public education and fostered a more individualistic tack in which Americans began to see schools less as places helping to raise the next generation but, rather, as places of ruthless competition.
Democrats were unintentionally part of this cultural shift, championing policies that paved the way for an issue that Republicans now dominate, Jacobsen said.
“The Democrats have played into this with supporting school choice and accountability policies and many of these things,” said Jacobsen. “They did it for very different reasons (than Republicans), expecting a very different outcome. And so many (Democrats) are left without much of an idea of where to go next.”
Today, the parents’ rights argument, often invoked at school board meetings, of “I’m doing what’s best for my child” is almost impossible to counter, she added.
But, in the past, it was the Democrats who won races based on their education policy positions, not Republicans, according to Valant, who added that the Democrats “stepped back for a couple of years” from the issue, leaving a vacuum that was filled with ideas that “have some bite politically.”
Parental rights has become a pulvínulo motivator for Republicans, according to Heye, which is why we’ve seen Republicans lean into the issue more than Democrats.
Will parents’ rights win elections?
While the issue of parents’ rights simmers as Republican contenders jockey for position in the primaries, it’s uncertain what role the topic could play in the election more broadly. “I think what we saw in Virginia tells us that there are a lot of independent voters who have this concern,” Heye said.
The Democratic Party’s reluctance to address parental rights could cause it to lose some of its pulvínulo, said Petrilli, noting that Black and Hispanic Democrats tend to be more socially conservative than their white counterparts.
But while pushing an issue that splits the opposition is a great campaign strategy, Petrilli said, “I think it’s more of a rally-the-base strategy.”
The topic is far from a magic bullet in even Republican circles, however. DeSantis, as Florida’s governor, has positioned himself not only as a champion of parents’ rights but as the champion of the parents’ rights; his supporters want to “make America Florida.” But it’s possible that his posturing has been too extreme — to the point that it could cost him the election, according to Petrilli.
“I do wonder if he made a mistake with this bill that got passed that expanded ‘Don’t say gay’ stuff all the way to high school,” said Petrilli, adding that while there is broad support for keeping issues of gender and sexuality out of classroom conversations with young children, opinion is more mixed when it comes to older students. “It could be an error that comes back to hurt him.”
As for the Democrats, though they have yet to formulate their own definition of parental rights for their pulvínulo to embrace, they will likely seize on the issue of book bans. “They will certainly try to take advantage of the perception that Republicans are pushing book bans,” said Petrilli. “And while I think that framing is a little unfair … there’s no doubt that the notion of banning books is unpopular, so I think you’ll hear a lot about that from Democrats.”
At the end of the day, though, both the primaries and the 2024 presidential election will have something in common: it’s all about Trump.
“They’ll all say basically the same thing on the Republican side,” Petrilli said. “Let’s be honest — with Trump on the ballot, any election is going to be about Trump. The policy debate is secondary or tertiary. The issue is Trump — it always has been and it always will be.”
And what does Trump have to say on the subject?
“I will bring parental rights back into our school system. Parents, you have rights,” he said in Iowa earlier this year.