In their search for issues that will deliver Congress in 2022, conservatives have begun to circle around the cause of “parents’ rights.” In Indiana, Republican Attorney General Todd Rokita recently introduced a Parents Bill of Rights, which asserts that “education policy and curriculum should accurately reflect the values of Indiana families.” In Florida, the legislature passed an even more comprehensive bill, assuring that the state and its public schools cannot infringe on the “fundamental rights” of parents. A growing number of states are allowing parents to sue districts that teach banned concepts. And in Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin has made parents’ rights a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, staging “parents matter” rallies and declaring, “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.” 

Given this frenzy, one might reasonably conclude that radicals are out to curtail the established rights that Americans have over the educational sphere. Yet what’s actually radical here is the assertion of parental powers that have never previously existed. This is not to say that parents should have no influence over how their children are taught. But common law and case law in the United States have long supported the idea that education should prepare young people to think for themselves, even if that runs counter to the wishes of parents. In the words of legal scholar Jeff Shulman, “This effort may well divide child from parent, not because socialist educators want to indoctrinate children, but because learning to think for oneself is what children do.”

 When do the interests of parents and children diverge? Generally, it occurs when a parent’s desire to inculcate a particular worldview denies the child exposure to other ideas and values that an independent young person might wish to embrace or at least entertain. To turn over all decisions to parents, then, would risk inhibiting the ability of young people to think independently. As the political scientist Rob Reich has argued, “Minimal autonomy requires, especially for its civic importance, that a child be able to examine his or her own political values and beliefs, and those of others, with a critical eye.” If we value that end, “the structure of schooling cannot simply replicate in every particularity the values and beliefs of a child’s home.”

The law has long reflected this. Consider home schooling. Although it is legal across the country, states still regulate its practice. Such regulations often aren’t enforced, but they are certainly on the books. Home-schooling parents can be required to establish minimal academic qualifications, to submit examples of student work to school district administrators or even to adopt a state-approved curriculum. As the Supreme Court noted in Wisconsin v. Yoder, a case that granted Amish parents the widest possible exemption from state control, “There is no doubt as to the power of a State, having a high responsibility for education of its citizens, to impose reasonable regulations for the control and duration of basic education.” And, as the court made clear in an earlier case, Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the state concerns itself not just with the well-being of the child but also with what the justices broadly called “the public welfare.” 

The sudden push for parental rights, then, isn’t a response to substantive changes in education or the law. It’s a political tactic. 

Writing in the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter observed that conservatives felt that the country had been “taken away from them and their kind” and that timeworn American virtues had been “eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals.” In response, they took up what he called the “paranoid style” — an approach to politics characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Published more than half a century ago, his essay could have been penned yesterday.

 The “paranoid style” of politics is particularly useful as a mechanism for organizing opposition. And the Republicans employing it right now have two particular targets in mind. The first is the public education system, which hard-liners have long sought to undermine. At an annual cost of nearly three-quarters of a trillion dollars, tuition-free, open-enrollment education represents one of the nation’s most substantial commitments to the public good. But well before Ronald Reagan’s failed effort to introduce vouchers in the 1980s, conservatives were making the case for a privatized system — one in which families, not taxpayers, would bear the cost of education, and governance would happen through the free market rather than democratic politics. In recent years, this vision has come roaring back. Conservative legislatures across the United States have introduced bills creating education savings accounts, private-school tuition tax credits and other forms of neo-vouchers that package old ideological wine in new bottles. 

But this play is much bigger than education. For years, the Republican Party has understood that the demographic tide is against it. Knowing that every vote matters, the GOP has increasingly relied on a strategy of voter suppression. Simultaneously, Republicans have worked to ensure that their base turns out in force by stoking White racial grievance. The recent firestorm over critical race theory is a perfect case in point. Never mind that this concept from legal scholarship isn’t actually taught in K-12 schools or that it isn’t what most protesters believe it to be. Republicans gain an electoral advantage by convincing their base that White children are being taught to hate themselves, their families and their country. Whether this supposed attack on the American way of life is being coordinated by Black Lives Matter activists, Marxist educators or antifa operatives, the point, as Hofstadter observed, is to generate an enemy “thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable.”

 Courts have found that parents have great authority when it comes to deciding how to raise and educate their children. This right, however, does not mean that public schools must cater to parents’ individual ideas about education. Parents can opt out of the public system if they wish, and pay to send their children to private or religious schools. But even there, parental rights remain subject to state regulation and override.

 In framing our public schools as extremist organizations that undermine the prerogatives of families, conservatives are bringing napalm to the fight. That may rally the base and tilt a few elections in their favor. But as with any scorched-earth campaign, the costs of this conflict will be borne long after the fighting stops. Parents may end up with a new set of “rights” only to discover that they have lost something even more fundamental in the process. Turned against their schools and their democracy, they may wake from their conspiratorial fantasies to find a pile of rubble and a heap of ashes.