The Parental Rights Trojan Horse

A shorter version was published in the Winnipeg Free Press August 21, 2023

Parental rights are a dog whistle for regressive politics that harm and bully 2SLGBTQIA+ students and community members. They are also a distraction from other substantial changes the government could be making to improve the well-being of children in schools–an actual priority of parents in this province.

On Thursday, the PC party promised to update the Public Schools Act and expand parental rights if elected. Premier Stefanson’s press conference began by outlining the changing technological landscape, but did not end with a discussion of how to increase media and digital literacies in schools. Instead, Premier Stefanson seemed to suggest that increased technology provides schools with the opportunity to update parents in real time. This press conference was a seemingly random cluster of crisis alerts, including warnings about cyberbullying and a supposed lack of communication between parents and schools about curriculum, sharing images, and outside presenters. The point of this press conference was to promote the idea of a crisis in order to advance reforms. It is precisely the formula we have seen used by reformers across Canada, to create a moral panic about library books, reading achievement, standardized test scores and more in order to push through reforms that do not reflect the needs of students in schools or the sentiments of the broader community.

Much of what was proposed is redundant and unfounded. The curriculum documents are all readily available online through Manitoba Education and Early Childhood Learning. In addition, media release forms are widely used in schools across the province and schools typically inform parents about guest speakers. Similarly, the idea that schools need to better inform parents is peculiar, as parents can email or phone teachers, read school newsletters, check out school social media, consult report cards, go to parent teacher conferences, speak to trustees, and attend school board meetings. Now more than ever, parents have many ways to stay informed, to collaborate with teachers, and to exercise their voice when it comes to their child’s education. However, the term ‘parental rights’ goes beyond these facets of parental involvement and raises alarm bells. Parental rights is not about parents, rather it is a conservative strategy to limit the scope of conversations and curriculum in schools. 

Parental rights advocates rail against teachers who are perceived as pushing a particular set of values, while the parental rights movement seeks to push its own belief system on others –without any sense of irony. The parental rights movement, which has picked up steam in the United States and is spreading into Canada, has been used to push forward reforms that are homophobic, transphobic and racist. This includes the Don’t Say Gay Bill in Florida, which bans instruction about 2SLGBTQIA+ identities. It includes a policy in New Brunswick that prohibits teachers from using a student’s preferred pronouns without parental consent, a policy that is harmful for transgender and non-binary students and does not respect their privacy. It includes book bans in many school districts that remove books about race and racism from library shelves. Masked as a moral panic, it is in reality a movement about controlling what is taught in schools, resulting in the dehumanization and delegitimization of students and communities. These moves to control what is happening in schools are motivated by small groups, who are often not parents within the division. These can be well funded groups who use the claim that schools are brainwashing students while making moves to advance their values in classrooms. Parents and guardians largely want their students to be exposed to varied views, to engage in contentious dialogue, to work through their own interpretations, and to make their own meanings. When we focus on parents who want to opt their children out of curriculum, or limit what everyone learns based on their personal values, we are privileging a small group of parents. Or worse, we are allowing political groups to advance their agenda under the guise of parental rights. 

In using language from the parental rights movement, the PC party is using a discourse of fear to rally and unite their base to vote in the October election. The parental rights movement often presents the 2SLGBTQIA+ community as a fabricated collective enemy, and this moral panic is used to garner support for increased control over schools. These crisis claims are also used to encourage parents to distrust public schools. This distrust is often used to motivate and rationalize privatization of public schools and the loss of a public good. This moral panic also results in demands to remove topics relating to diversity, equity, inclusion, decolonization, social emotional learning and more from the classroom, all of which are important parts of Manitoba curriculum and other education policy documents. Fear and anger are being stoked to make changes that do not reflect our communities, the basis of our education system, or human rights in the province. 

What is left out of this discussion is the rights of students. Students are not parental property, they have their own rights enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, this promise from the PC Party is in violation of the current Public Schools Act, which indicates that “the purpose of the public school system is to serve the best educational interests of students,” as well as “the development of a fair, compassionate, healthy and prosperous society.” Safe and inclusive schools and classrooms are in the best interests of students, where they can learn about multiple perspectives, cultural values and beliefs beyond those of their own family and community. This is essential for a fair and healthy society. Similarly, other educational policies in Manitoba prioritize learning in community over parental control of the education system. For instance, Mamàhtawisiwin: The Wonder We Were Born With, the Indigenous Education Policy Framework asks schools to commit to putting students at the centre by respecting and listening to them. It also promotes the authentic involvement of families, which means schools and families working together for the well-being of students. It is about collaboration, rather than control.

Parental rights are a dog whistle for regressive politics that harm and bully 2SLGBTQIA+ students and community members. They are also a distraction from other substantial changes the government could be making to improve the well-being of children in schools–an actual priority of parents in this province. We could be discussing the persistent underfunding of public education. We could be pursuing supports for students experiencing poverty, including, but not limited to, universal nutrition programs. We could be advocating for more counseling resources for students. We could be investing in existing school infrastructure, which in many cases is unsafe and in drastic need of repairs. We could be working to reduce class sizes. And we could be committing to ensuring safe and inclusive spaces, while denouncing movements that aim to ban books and erase 2SLGBTQIA+ people from the classroom. All of these actions support children, parents, families, teachers, and ultimately communities. They have also, for the most part, been absent during the election discourse so far. Instead the PCs are using parental rights to distract voters from these issues. 

Shannon D.M. Moore, Kevin Lopuck, Colleen Dawson, Katie Hurst, Ellen Bees, Emily Livingston, Scott Durling, Melanie Janzen are all with People for Public Education Manitoba.