The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Parents should have an important role in education, but bullying schools isn’t it

Students at Colin L. Powell Elementary School on Oct. 19 in Centreville, Va. (Kenny Holston/Getty Images)

As Virginia’s governor in 2016, Terry McAuliffe (D) faced the decision of whether to sign into law a bill that would have required schools to notify parents of instructional material with sexually explicit content. “Parents,” we wrote, “should be involved in their children’s education and schools should heed their concerns.” Nonetheless, we urged Mr. McAuliffe to veto the measure. Most school districts have in place policies or practices that take into account the concerns of the community and those of individual parents; the bill would have undermined the ability of local school boards to make decisions, and it targeted notable books by authors of color.

Mr. McAuliffe rightly vetoed the bill, and that decision has surfaced as an issue in his race to reclaim the governorship against Republican Glenn Youngkin. In defending his decision, Mr. McAuliffe misspoke in saying “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign said the comment, made last month in the second and final debate before the November election, was taken out of context. “Look,” he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell in a subsequent interview, “I’m a father of five children. Of course parents have a role in education. We all do.”

Mr. Youngkin has seized on the misstep, putting Virginia front and center in the nation’s increasingly heated debate over what should be taught in schools and who gets to decide. Battles over instruction and curriculum in public schools are not new, and there are legitimate concerns today about whether some school districts are distorting American history in an overreaction to the mistakes of the past. But there also are legitimate concerns about some Republicans stoking a “parental rights” movement for political gain, furthering cultural divisions. By their telling, a cabal of school administrators and teachers have sidelined parents from critical decisions including mask wearing, sex education and the teaching of U.S. history.

What that rhetoric overlooks is that parents are embedded in public education. They elect members of the school board, as well as the lawmakers who fund the schools. They sit on the advisory committees that formulate policy and practices, and they give public testimony before decisions are made. They volunteer in schools, and they communicate their concerns and their children’s needs to teachers. No question that parents should have a say in the education of their children, but individual parents can’t dictate that schools teach what they want.

Allowing one parent — or a group of parents — to bully, threaten and intimidate school officials into their way of thinking is not what our democracy is about. And it is not what learning should be about. It is chilling that a school administrator in Texas suggested that an opposing view of the Holocaust needed to be taught to comply with the state’s controversial law on curriculum content. Everyone — parents, teachers and school administrators, as well as politicians — needs to focus less on what books are being taught and more on giving students the skills to think critically and form their own judgments.