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Everything You Need to Know About Parents’ Rights in Public Schools

Parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children are fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Charles Snow
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Parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children are fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

While reading an article recently, I stumbled across an astonishing photo—one that, as the author pointed out, you’d be forgiven for thinking was a relic of the past.

It was a photo of a public elementary school sign promoting an event. You can see it below:



The photo symbolizes the hot-button, critical issues that have taken center stage in our national conversation: public schools, race, and families.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when almost all students were at home, parents learned that many public schools are indoctrinating students into divisive ideologies. Students are being subjected to unequal treatment based on race, ethnicity, and religion, among other things.

Not only that, but schools are promoting a destructive gender ideology that tells confused children they can adopt a different gender identity. Boys are told they can become girls and vice versa. And these decisions and mental health struggles are kept secret from their parents.

Some government officials seemed to forget who would care deeply about what’s happening in public schools: parents.

Although the law recognizes the rights of parents, parental rights are clearly under increasing attack today. Alliance Defending Freedom is taking on precedent-setting legal cases to protect parents’ rights and enshrine them as fundamental in every state.

But, you may be asking, what are parental rights? What’s the history behind the issue? And why should they matter to every American? We will answer these and other pressing questions about parental rights below.


What are parental rights?

Children are born into families. The family is the basic unit of society.

Parents’ rights to direct the upbringing and education of their children are fundamental rights protected by the U.S. Constitution. In fact, these rights are “pre-political.” What does that mean? Parental rights are natural rights that exist before the state. They cannot be given or taken away by a government.

Parental rights include, but are not limited to, making decisions regarding children’s education and health care in a manner consistent with their family’s values. Parents must do so to promote their children’s general health and well-being.

As the adage goes, every right comes with a responsibility.


Why are parental rights important?

Parents are tasked with taking care of their children before they can take care of themselves, teaching them to walk, talk, and love. While many people will help shape a child into the person they will become, no influence is as profound and enduring as that of the child’s parents. This is the responsibility of parents everywhere.

Like all fundamental rights, parental rights must be vigilantly defended.


What is the history of parental rights?

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment protects parental rights. The Court has repeatedly affirmed that they are fundamental rights.

However, in 2000, the Court issued a fractured decision in a grandparent visitation case called Troxel v. Granville.

The Court came to the right result in finding that a mother had the parental right to determine her child’s visitation schedule. But the justices did not use the opportunity to clearly define the legal standard for protecting the fundamental nature of parental rights under the Constitution.

Thus, some lower courts have used Troxel to confuse the law and limit parental rights. That’s why we sometimes see parents’ rights not being treated the same as other fundamental rights, such as the rights to free speech or religious freedom.

While some states have fixed this problem by passing legislation to give parental rights the protection they deserve, there are gaps in the legal landscape. And, in fact, these gaps reflect conflicting attitudes toward the rights of parents, particularly as they pertain to education.

Some believe that the state and parents are, essentially, co-parents: parents are responsible for what happens at home, while the state is responsible for children's education. But that is simply not true.

Consider the 1972 Supreme Court case Wisconsin v. Yoder. In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the right of Amish parents to educate their children at home after the eighth grade.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “The history and culture of Western civilization reflect a strong tradition of parental concern for the nurture and upbringing of their children. This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition.” The Court affirmed what many know intuitively: the responsibility of raising children rests primary with parents.


What is the state of parental rights today?

Mixing the fractured nature of the protection of parental rights with the attacks on parents’ rights in education and health care sparked a growing movement of parents dedicated to doing what’s best for their children.

As we consider the state of the rights of parents today, let’s consider the two main threats facing them, as well as the legislative impact on them.


Politicized public education

More and more school boards across the nation are adopting policies that endanger children’s minds, bodies, and family relationships. Now is the time for concerned parents, educators, and school board members to speak.

The controversies arising in K-12 education today over critical race theory (CRT) are rooted in critical theory and postmodernism.

Critical theory is a social theory and philosophy that views everyone and everything through the lens of race and instructs that society is fundamentally corrupted by race-based power dynamics. These power dynamics enable certain groups to oppress other groups (based on race, class, sexual orientation, or gender identity).

The only solution to oppression advanced by proponents of CRT is a complete overhaul of society, including our government, communities, and even family relationships. To overhaul these so-called dominant power structures, traditional values and institutions, such as the nuclear family, religion, and even classical liberalism, must first be “dismantled.”

Let’s be clear: racism is evil. Every person is created in the image of God, deserving of equal treatment and respect. But CRT is not the solution to racism in America. And it should not be injected into public school classrooms and taught as truth.

Students should learn about the evil of race-based slavery and Jim Crow laws. But they shouldn’t be indoctrinated in politicized narratives about American history, such as the 1619 Project’s assertion that America is a fundamentally racist country in which our freedoms are tools of oppression.

When a CRT-influenced curriculum is introduced in schools, children are taught not to view their classmates as potential friends and playmates but as separate and suspicious people.

Today, many schools introduce the tenets of critical theory by promoting it as the means to achieving “social justice” and “equity.”

In one of the first cases of its kind, ADF is challenging a Virginia school district policy based on CRT that discriminates against students and violates their civil rights. The Albemarle County School Board’s “Anti-Racism Policy” was adopted with the stated purpose of eliminating “all forms of racism.” Instead, it fosters racial hostility.

Racism is not eliminated with more racism. As U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts once wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”


Gender identity politics and hidden ‘health care’

As already noted, all human beings possess inherent dignity and should be treated with respect. And this obviously includes kids who are struggling to feel comfortable with their bodies.

Just as obviously, public schools should not be promoting politicized views about sexual orientation and gender identity to their students. However, with the introduction of gender theory into the classroom and public-school policies, this is happening in many school districts across the country.

In fact, policies that ignore biological reality threaten student health and safety and undermine the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children.

Contrary to what children may be taught in some public schools, no one is born in the wrong body. Studies show that most children who experience gender confusion will come to accept their sex if allowed to go through a normal puberty.

Instead, some public schools are socially “transitioning” students at school without telling parents, maintaining “secret files” about gender-confused students, and forcing school employees to address students in ways that are inconsistent with their sex. Practices like these not only violate the rights of teachers and force them to lie to parents; they also harm students and clearly ignore the fundamental rights of the parents.

Just take what happened to a family in the Kettle Moraine School District in Wisconsin.

School officials said they would use a male name and male pronouns to address the parents’ 12-year-old daughter without their consent—and even over their objections. They had to withdraw their daughter from the school to protect her mental health and preserve their parental responsibilities.

The government is not a co-parent with mothers and fathers. Every parent has the right—and duty—to choose what’s best for their children, especially when it comes to health care and decisions that could affect the rest of their lives.

We defend parents’ rights to make decisions for their children against attempts by the government to usurp that role.


In the legislatures

Parents are taking on the challenge across the country.

When Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal law enforcement agencies to consider taking action to address “threats” to school boards (those “threats” were apparently concerned parents speaking up), parents stepped up to the plate.

And while ADF is representing parents in legal challenges to vindicate their rights, equally important is the ongoing effort to encourage state and federal legislatures to protect parental rights.

Did you know that:

  • 39 states have no statutes that expressly define and protect parental rights.
  • 47 states do not grant parents review of learning materials and activities in advance of teaching.
  • 12 states do not allow parents to be involved in their schools' sex ed curricula.

ADF’s Center for Legislative Advocacy is advocating for legislation that ensures the government cannot infringe on fundamental parental rights. This includes legislation that asserts the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, provides for increased transparency in curriculum, and ensures parents—not schools—are making vital health care decisions for their children.

The effort to cement the rights of parents is multifaceted. It’s too important not to be.


How you can protect parental rights

Parents have every right to seek accountability, choice, and transparency in their children’s education. Government officials must be held accountable for what’s promoted to children. Parents should be offered choices in education and health care for their children. And there must be transparency to know what children are being taught and how they’re being treated while they are a captive audience at school each day.

The protection of parental rights and the health and well-being of children across the country depend on the everyday choices of concerned citizens like you.

By partnering with Alliance Defending Freedom, you will help fund strategic litigation, influence law, and promote policies that protect parents and children.


Charles Snow, Senior Copywriter & Editor
Charles Snow
Content Director
Charles Snow serves as Content Director at Alliance Defending Freedom, where he supports ADF's communications and fundraising efforts.