Back to school: What rights do parents have?

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As the start of the new school year approaches, Catholic parents face a tidal wave of concerns as more schools across the country adopt harmful gender policies, make medical decisions for students without parental knowledge and consent, and teach inappropriate and divisive content.

Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know: 

What rights do parents have over their child’s education?

The answer is complicated. 

Kate Anderson, ADF’s Legal Counsel and Director of the Center for Parental Rights, told CNA in a phone interview that “parents have the [constitutional] right to direct the upbringing of their kids,” recognized at both state and federal levels. 

This includes choosing where to educate their children and making medical care decisions, including when it comes to the issue of school “gender support plans.”

Gender support plans in schools are on the rise, allowing administrators to “affirm” a child’s gender identity while at school with new names, pronouns, clothing, and in some cases, referrals to gender clinics for counseling and puberty blockers. 

“Schools are absolutely in violation of the law when they implement medical treatment, which [is what] gender support plans often lead to, without a parent’s consent or knowledge,” Anderson said. 

In lawsuits across the country, ADF is representing both parents and teachers who oppose schools' implementation of gender support plans without the parents' knowledge.

Do parents have a right to control what’s in their child’s curriculum? 

When asked if parents have a legal right to see what’s in their child’s curriculum, Anderson said the issue is still “unstable” in law.

The explosion of remote learning during the pandemic led many parents to discover how gender ideology, critical race theory and Marxist tenets have infiltrated their children’s curriculum.

Some states have transparency and opt-out laws that allow parents to see what their children are learning and exempt them from certain classes, like comprehensive sex education. 

However, these rights vary by state and school, which is why Anderson urges parents to stay actively involved.

“Even in states where there aren't clear laws, schools are more likely to allow an opt-out instead of fighting with parents about it and ending up in litigation,” she said. 

What should parents look for? 

Unfortunately, sex education is not the only problem. Objectionable content is everywhere — in other subjects, school libraries, and summer reading lists.

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“I think parents are very hyper-aware of what's going on in [their child’s] health class,” Bethany Mandel, homeschool mother of five and editor of the children’s book series Heroes of Liberty, said to CNA.

“But what a lot of people don't realize is that teachers are sneaking this kind of content into reading instruction time, or even math,” she explained.

Gender ideology and critical race theory are being mainstreamed in all courses, within school culture and even in anti-bullying signs around the building, according to Theresa Farnan, a Catholic author and moral philosopher who co-founded the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s (EPPC) Person & Identity Project.

Children can also be exposed to harmful content through extracurricular activities, school surveys, guest lecturers, organizations that partner with the school, and even field trips. 

“At the end of the day, you're still dealing with an apparatus that has captured the public schools. If you are in the public schools, you've got to be really realistic,” she told CNA. 

Farnan is the co-author of Get Out Now: Why You Should Pull Your Child from Public School Before It’s Too Late, and says the only way parents can fully control their child’s education is by homeschooling or finding a faithful Catholic school. 

“That’s the only real right parents have,” she said, “The only way [public schools] are going to take that seriously, is the fact that that parents are pulling their kids out.”

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Parents must be informed and organized 

Both Farnan and Mandel recognize that for some, however, public schools are the only option.

“There are some families that right now cannot get out of the public schools,” Farnan said, adding that many families whose children have special needs aren’t accommodated by all Catholic schools and need extra support. 

Farnan said she came across special ed curricula in Seattle, Washington, that had a module on sex education that referred to Planned Parenthood as a “trusted resource” for special needs students.

“That's part of the great betrayal of trust that's going on here,” she said. “We can’t abandon them.”

Mandel went to public school herself. When asked what parents can do if public school is their only option, she said engagement is the number one tool parents have.

“Parents need to stop being passive [and] push back,” Mandel urged.

“There's a lot of understandable and justifiable fear that, when parents speak up, they [or their kids] get ostracized as a result,” she added, but this should not intimidate them. 

Mandel explained that a lot of schools used COVID restrictions as a way to prevent parents from having access to their child’s classroom. 

“Parents need to stand up and say, this makes no sense,” she emphasized. 

Mandel encourages parents to learn what the content is in every subject and to band together, like a group of parents in Montgomery County, Maryland who had concerns over a required book. 

“Parents need to work together [to] make their voices heard,” including at school board meetings, Mandel recommends. 

Simple steps to taking action 

Nicki Neily, the president of Defending Ed, an organization dedicated to fighting what it sees as political indoctrination in the classroom, believes parents are not powerless.

“Knowing is half the battle,” she told CNA in a phone interview. 

Neily said she encourages parents to start with Defending Ed’s “Empower” site, which she says is about how to “get smart about what your rights are.”

“What is the First Amendment? What is Title Nine? We cut through all [the jargon] because people need to know what their rights are,” she explained.

The next step? Ask questions.

“We encourage people to start small: start with your teacher. If you don't get the answer you want from your teacher, then go to the principal, then the superintendent, then the school board. But don't give up,” she said.

Neily said that schools are “notoriously opaque,” but this shouldn’t dissuade parents from asking questions about the weekly lesson plan, for example.

“We all know that children do better when their families are involved in their education period,” Neily pointed out. “If we're not brought into the process, we can't help them.”

If a school is taxpayer-funded, it has to be transparent, she mentioned. 

Defending Ed has a team of staffers dedicated to filing public records requests for parents who have been blocked from seeing their school’s policies.

Filing a records request is sometimes a necessary last resort when parents want to see public documents kept by their school boards and other public agencies. 

The rules for how and what you can request varies by state, but this is exactly the help Defending Ed and other organizations like Citizens for Renewing America provide. 

“If parents are not able to find what they need, or if they're being stonewalled, we are always happy to step in and help,” Neily said.

Parental rights are affirmed in Church teaching 

The Catholic Church’s long-standing position that parents have the right and responsibility to educate their children is a truth expressed by a number of Church teachers and in several magisterial documents. 

Parents have the “original, primary and inalienable right” to educate their children (The Charter of the Rights of the Family) and it is “of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute” (CCC 2221). 

Pope John Paul II reflected that “the education of children is a sacred duty and a shared task of the parents, both father and mother … parents are called to represent the good Father in heaven, the one perfect model to inspire them.”

Where to start:

Gender Ideology

Critical Race Theory

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