Red Parent, Blue Parent

When it comes to masks, vaccines, and curricula, parents are divided over what matters most: parents’ rights, or the common good?

Illustration of a red silhouette and a blue silhouette holding hands with two children
Getty; The Atlantic

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer, but it’s become more like the great divider. Throughout the pandemic, Republican and Democratic parents have expressed wildly different ideas about how public schools should work.

Parents’ political ideology now influences not only whom they vote for but also how they feel about mask mandates in classrooms, vaccine mandates for students, and discussions of racism and sexuality in school. These disagreements tend to revolve around a single question: Should parents alone decide what kids learn and how they live, or do government institutions have a role to play too?

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to want parents to be the only decision makers when it comes to protecting their kids from both the coronavirus and controversial ideas. In polls, they are more inclined to say that protecting personal liberty is more important than the common good; that masks and vaccines shouldn’t be mandated in schools; and that parents should get a say in what children are taught. “I feel like, as a parent, we know what’s best for our children,” Erica, a Virginia mother whom I agreed to identify by only her first name because she’s concerned for her job, told me. “If you want to wear a mask, please do. But please don’t force me to have my child wear a mask.”

Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely to express interest in protecting the common good. They’re more likely to feel that, in school, students should learn to fix social problems. And in polls, they’re more likely than Republicans to trust teachers and public-health officials. Caroline Pharr, a Democratic mom in Helena, Montana, supports universal masking in schools in part because it “protects communities, including those that can’t choose to get vaccinated yet,” she told me. “Wearing a mask doesn’t just impact you; it impacts everyone around you.” She thinks that public-health officials, not individual parents, should be the ones to decide when masks come off in schools.

“Education for a long time was an issue that tended to be somewhat less polarized than other issue areas,” says Sarah Reckhow, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “And now it just looks a lot like other highly salient policy issues where Republicans and Democrats come down on opposite sides on key questions.” Her data show that in 2000, liberals and conservatives in Michigan diverged little on their attitudes toward charter schools; by 2012, support for charter schools was 26 percent higher among conservatives. In 2004, Republicans nationally were slightly more likely than Democrats to say that they had a “great deal” of confidence in education; now they’re less likely than Democrats to say that. Partisanship was more useful than COVID case rates in predicting when Michigan school districts would reopen for in-person learning, Reckhow found in a recent study. (Districts with more Republican voters were more likely to reopen sooner.)

Of course, plenty of parents identify as neither hard-core Republicans nor hard-core Democrats, and even partisan parents might find themselves questioning their side’s consensus. In December, a quarter of Democrats didn’t think that masking should be mandatory for young schoolchildren, and several Democrat-led states are now easing mask mandates in schools. And in liberal San Francisco, voters recently recalled three members of the Board of Education in part because they had spent time attempting to rename schools rather than reopen them.

Still, the fight over whether to prioritize parental control or community well-being has played out in other school-related imbroglios across the country in recent months. An early volley came during last year’s Virginia gubernatorial campaign, when Democratic former Governor Terry McAuliffe remarked that parents shouldn’t “be telling schools what they should teach.” Republican Glenn Youngkin seized on the comment, creating a viral ad featuring a mother concerned about her son’s reading material. What did she want? “The option to choose an alternative—for my children,” she says in the ad. Parental outrage helped fuel Youngkin’s victory. He recently banned mask mandates in schools, arguing that parents should choose whether their kids wear face coverings.

Elsewhere, several mostly Republican-run states have prohibited COVID-vaccine mandates in schools. “Philosophically and as a health professional, these types of medical decisions should be left up to parents for their children,” Oklahoma State Senator Rob Standridge, one of the authors of that state’s vaccine-mandate ban, told Stateline. In Los Angeles, a parent group suing a charter school over its vaccine mandate uses the slogan, fittingly, Let Them Breathe, Let Them Choose.

Conservative attacks on school curricula are also often pitched in the language of parental control. In November, Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, introduced a “Parents Bill of Rights” so that parents can know “what their kid is being taught” and “who is doing the teaching.” In the past year, 14 conservative-leaning states have passed laws that restrict the teaching of critical race theory or other topics related to sexism or racism, according to an Education Week analysis. Rebecca Jacobsen, an education professor at the University of Michigan, has found that 65 percent of Republican Michiganders support banning critical race theory, compared with 25 percent of Democrats. In the same poll, Democrats were more trusting of teachers’ judgment about reading material than Republicans were.

The most explosive example of the Republican crackdown on schools occurred when a school district in a very conservative area of Tennessee removed the Pulitzer Prize–winning Holocaust book Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum because it contains eight swear words and a bit of cartoon nudity. “It looks like the entire curriculum is developed to normalize sexuality, normalize nudity and normalize vulgar language,” the McMinn County school-board member Mike Cochran said, according to the meeting minutes. “You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it but the kids, they soak it in.” His view presumes that parents should monitor what their kids are learning.

While conservatives focus on parental rights, liberals are more likely to endorse the idea that curricula and school public-health guidelines should leave no vulnerable person behind. In an op-ed opposing the end of Virginia’s school mask mandate, the parent group Loudon4all emphasized the potential benefits of universal masking for other people, writing that it “is not just to keep students healthy; it keeps educators healthy and prevents community spread.” In Jacobsen’s poll, 92 percent of Democrats said that schools should teach children about fairness and equity, compared with 61 percent of Republicans; and 88 percent of Democrats thought that schools should teach more about race and racism as part of history, compared with 35 percent of Republicans. “I do think there’s more of an openness from some liberals to want to discuss the long-term legacies of slavery and our history of racism,” Jacobsen told me.

Justin Kanew, a Democrat and the founder of the news site The Tennessee Holler, which broke the Maus story, feels that some school boards are practicing censorship. “It’s not trusting our teachers; it’s not trusting our schools, not trusting our kids to be able to handle this stuff,” he told me. He thinks that Black Americans should have a greater say in how racism is taught in schools. “We should be doing more listening than talking as white people,” he said.

Parents aren’t dreaming up their views on education independently. Like with most political fights, the schools debate is one in which politicians hype up their voters, voters respond approvingly, and politicians scramble to say more things that resonate. In some ways, it’s smart of Republican politicians to lead the parental-rights charge: Younger people are more likely to have school-age children, and most Republicans under 55 are parents, but most Democrats of that age aren’t.

Republican politicians have long used parents’-rights issues to motivate conservative voters. As Jennifer Berkshire points out in The New Republic, in the 1990s prominent Republicans unearthed a 1973 academic article by their archnemesis, Hillary Clinton, on the importance of childrens’ rights. Clinton wrote that, historically, society has placed certain types of people in a “dependency relationship” if they are deemed undeserving or incapable of taking care of themselves, and she listed “the family,” along with “marriage, slavery, and the Indian reservation system,” as examples of this type of arrangement. That was enough for Pat Buchanan, in his 1992 GOP-convention speech, to say that Clinton “has compared marriage and the family as institutions to slavery and life on an Indian reservation.” An advocacy group called Of the People, led by Betsy DeVos, who would later serve as President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, began pushing parents’-rights bills across the country.

Most of the measures fizzled, but they did coincide with an increase in the popularity of homeschooling among Republicans. Most homeschooling parents have voted for Republicans in recent presidential elections, according to Heath Brown, a public-policy professor at the City University of New York. Homeschooling, after all, is the ultimate way of asserting your influence over your kids’ education: If you want something done right, do it yourself.