It’s hard to argue against more rights for people, and the people who are pushing for the end of the public school system under the banner “parental rights” know it well.
Now that the question of property tax reform has finally been settled in the Texas legislature, the governing body turns to school vouchers. Governor Greg Abbott, backed by wealthy Christian nationalist donor networks, is pushing to make taxpayer funds available for private school tuition. These schools are almost all Christian in nature and would represent the largest transfer of public funds to religious organizations in the state’s history. The matter is opposed by all Democrats and rural Republicans, who see the plan as a way to defund their rural schools in favor of enriching pricey urban and suburban private campuses.
From the beginning, the argument has not been framed as the Christianization of childhood education, but a matter of “parental rights.” Abbott and others claim that children are being indoctrinated in public schools, and trot out a variety of conservative culture war bogeypersons to justify it. Led by figures like Christopher Rufo, content related to LGBT life and an accurate portrayal of racism in American history is deemed to be a sinister plot to undermine moral teachings of parents.
This is not a new argument. Emma Brown and Peter Jamison at The Washington Post just published a detailed history of Michael Farris, the Washington state lawyer who has been a driving force for the “parental rights” movement for four decades. Brown and Jamison obtained a recording of a call Farris made in 2021 where Farris talks about using lawsuits and the new conservative supermajority on the U.S. Supreme Court to fight school curriculums under the “parental rights” banner.
The argument goes like this: by teaching things like LGBT acceptance, history through a lens that includes white supremacy, and evolution, schools are pushing their own religious agenda, secular humanism. To be clear, secular humanism is not a religion. It is a term made up by some religious people in the 1930s to paint dwindling congregations as an anti-God conspiracy theory. Some anti-religious people took to using the term to describe themselves, and the general philosophy can be traced back to various Freethought movements, but it’s not an organized body of belief.
By pretending that schools are engaging in their own religious indoctrination, and one in direct opposition to the beliefs of certain hardline regressive Christian sects, figures like Farris create a false dichotomy where parents should have the right to choose between two schools of thought (and the public should pay for it either way). It’s a specious argument as what schools are teaching is verifiable, tested fact. LGBT people exist, white supremacy was an important force in American history, and evolution has withstood more than a century of rigorous testing.
What Farris, Abbott, and their allies wants is a distorted idea of “fairness,” where a narrow interpretation of Christian scripture carries the same weight as science and scholarship. By this measure, parents should have the right to choose which of these doctrines are taught to children in a manner subsidized by the state.
However, its premise is based on a bad faith legal myth. Secular humanism is not a doctrine on par with religion, and there is no conspiracy to push it. Parents have a right to review public school materials, homeschool their children, or send them to religious institutions, but they don’t have a right to a reality where secularism is an equal and opposing force to their beliefs. Much like how “states’ rights” was used as a shield to obscure the fact that the right states’ wanted was to own slaves, the “parental rights” claim is used to distort the fact that some Christian sects want state dollars to sanctify their teachings.