Episode 176: How “Parental Rights” Has Been a Right-wing Stalking Horse For Over 100 Years

Citations Needed | February 8, 2023 | Transcript

Citations Needed
48 min readFeb 8, 2023
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs the “Parental Rights in Education” bill during a news conference on Monday, March 28, 2022, at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill, FL.


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: “Surrounded by children, DeSantis signs the ‘Parental Rights in Education’ bill,” ABC13 reports. “Biden partnered with organization which questioned parents’ rights to be notified about their kids’ transition,” Fox News tells us. “Parental rights isn’t a partisan issue. It’s what’s best for our children,” an opinion column in The Washington Times warns. We’ve heard these cries for over a century from reactionary forces: we’re just a bunch of scrappy “parents” protecting our kids from sinister, secular forces of state control.

Adam: But what does “parents’ rights” mean exactly? Which “parents’ rights” are we talking about? Which “rights” are we centering, and who funds which parents to assert which set of rights that, we are told, are essential to these quote-unquote “parents”?

Nima: There is, of course, no essential “parents” cohort with a coherent ideology and view on education. But, as a term, it’s a useful stalking horse for far right political projects targeting education, namely those opposing secularism, anti-racism, LGBTQ existence, labor, and teachers unions. A skeleton key effectively for whatever reactionary cause doesn’t want to be presented as such. After all, who could oppose “parents’ rights”. Like the clever term “pro-life,” the “parents’ rights” label is similarly designed to put advocates of secularism and progress on the defensive, to erase parents who oppose a far right agenda, and court sympathetic and whitewashing coverage from corporate media.

Adam: On today’s episode we will discuss the history of “parents rights” as a popular rightwing slogan from its uses in opposing child labor laws in the early 20th century, to pushing religious indoctrination in public schools in the 1990s to today’s attacks on trans people and teachers union; how its evocation by the right — and acceptance by media outlets — obscures the darker motives and political forces at work, and why any media framing of what “parents” want or don’t want is inherently mugging bullshit.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Jennifer Berkshire, teacher, writer and co-host of the education podcast, Have You Heard. Her analysis of education and politics has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The Baffler and The New York Times. Her most recent book is A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, co-authored with Jack Schneider and published by The New Press.

[Begin Clip]

Jennifer Berkshire: Just like we saw in the ’90s, when you actually break down the specifics of the policy items that are under this sort of feel good, generic rubric of parent rights, you know, they get less and less popular. So there is no issue that brings together Americans like their opposition to book banning, and we saw this play out in the midterm elections that candidates really at every level, when they would embrace the most extreme aspects of this parental rights rhetoric, they ended up getting crushed.

[End Clip]

Adam: The concept of “parents’ rights” as a slogan has grown more acute in recent years, but it’s one that’s been around for over 100 years, and it’s one I’m sure you’ve heard non stop.

[Begin Clip Montage]

Man #1: Here now Fox News anchor John Stossel on the subject of parental rights.

Woman #1: A couple of moms who helped kickstart the parental rights movement here in Florida.

Woman #2: I think the contrast of the true name being Parental Rights Bill versus all the other media junk, narrative junk that is being espoused for it is really telling.

Man #2: Sexuality in schools. But it’s actually, it’s really just about parents’ rights and parental rights in education.

Woman #3: DeSantis is ripping into Disney saying it only opposes Florida’s new Parental Rights Law after the woke mob came after Disney. We’re going to dig in next in the evening edit.

Man #3: I’m making sure that we’re going to stand up for parents’ rights. We’re going to make sure that our children have their parents engaged in their lives fully.

Woman #4: And so much more. All right, coming up, parental rights under attack.

Donald Trump: It’s like a big political statement. We will protect parents’ rights, we’ll bring them back.

Ron DeSantis: But what we also did in addition to parents’ rights education, we did curriculum transparency in Florida. Every parent has the right to know what is being taught in the books that are being used and they have a right to protest if they don’t follow state standards.

[End Clip Montage]

Adam: Yeah, we’re excited today. So we have back on the show —

Nima: After a mere five and a half years.

Adam: This is a spiritual sequel to Episode 1, and we thought it made sense to bring back the incomparable Jennifer Berkshire, our first guest whose work I’ve obviously been following all these years, but we had around five years and eight months ago — God, we’ve done this a long time — and we’re so excited to have him back on the spiritual sequel, there is no limit to the throwback.

Nima: That’s right. It’s been thrown back as far as it could possibly go.

Adam: Yeah, so this is a sequel to that, this is sort of similar current in our politics, which is the attack on education, tackling secularism, and above all, let’s be honest, attack on teachers unions, the ultimate perennial boogeyman of the right.

Nima: Our first episode ever, from July of 2017, was on charter schools, and how that movement, the push for charter schools, you know, funded by large unaccountable philanthropy, funded by corporate donors, funded by hedge fund managers sounds like it’s about — what have we heard Adam? — school choice, ‘you just need choice,’ we’ve talked about in healthcare, we’ve talked about whether you can join a union or not, ‘you just need the choice, that most American value of freedom, you have freedom to choose,’ right? Unless it’s of course about a woman’s body.

Adam: What’s more valuable than choice is rights, you have rights, and certain constituents we are told have rights.

Nima: Right.

Adam: And parents’ rights, which is an idea we’ve been rattling around for a long time because it keeps coming up in so many of our episodes kind of tangentially, is this really great right-wing watchword because obviously, Nima, who could oppose parents’ rights, especially people who have children, you’re like, ‘Oh, well, I’m protective of my children,’ right? Everyone in their own mind thinks they’re Liam Neeson from Taken, right? They’re this, ‘I’m going to protect my kids from baddies,’ but yeah, there’s this idea of parents’ rights as this kind of fundamental good, and we’re excited to talk about where that term comes from, how it’s grown so much more popular in the last two, three years, and why if you hear it, if you hear a parents’ rights, you have just an image of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, like that many red flags, that many red flags are going off when you hear the word parents’ rights, because you are almost always getting your wallet picked if you hear that term, because it is almost always a bullshit term.

(Credit: Douglas R. Clifford, Tampa Bay Times)

Nima: Parents’ rights is sort of what you get when you combine the homeschool movement in its next iteration with like anti abolition states’ rights, you get parents’ rights. It smuggles in all these things where you get to say it’s about one thing, there’s this really kind of clever phrase that sounds really good and appealing, and yet, there’s so much packed into that.

But as we tend to do, let’s go back and talk about history. The first widespread English language use of parents’ rights began to emerge in 1907 and 1908 as the British parliament and broader public debated the 1908 Children’s Act, which. According to Author Dan Moorhouse, sought these specific reforms, Moorhouse writes, quote:

“Cruelty. The act legislated to minimise the risk of Child Cruelty. This built on previous acts of parliament and opened the door to prosecution in further cases. Examples of child cruelty cited are children under the age of seven being left unattended near an open fire and suffocation of children when they sleep in a bed with an intoxicated (drunk) parent.

“Childminding. The Act made it a requirement for paid childminders to register. Upon doing so they could be inspected by the local authorities. They also were forbidden from taking insurance out on children whom they cared for: this prevented them from profiting from a child’s death or injury.

“Punishment. Prior to the Children’s Charter children faced the same sentences and punishments as adults if convicted of a crime. Following the Children’s Charter, this changed. No longer was a child subject to Capital Punishment (The Death Penalty) and Children were no longer sent to adult prisons. Instead, they were sent to newly established Borstals.

“Smoking. A ban on the sale of tobacco to under 16’s was introduced. The Police were given the right to confiscate tobacco from children. Education. The Act promised that children would be entitled to an education.

“Banned non-medicinal alcohol drinking for children under 5 years old.”

Adam: So, naturally, religious leaders and other conservatives in the United Kingdom did not like this bill, specifically the sections on secular education and laws against child labor. And so again, you have to understand, for hundreds and hundreds of years, children were property, they were basically cattle of adults, the idea that they would have separate rights protected by the state in a lot of places was a fairly new concept, and so of course, this led to outrage because what was being offended here? It was parents’ right. So the first English language mention in newspaper.com archives comes from this time period, when they’re debating Children’s Act of 1908.

Nima: Right. From the Manchester Courier under the headline, “Parents’ Rights. League Formed. Great Manchester Meeting. No Secularism. Rousing Speeches.” And in this article, which recounts a meeting by opponents to this new bill, it includes this under the subheader, “Bishop Knox’s Proposals.” Quote:

“The Bishop of Manchester, who was received with cheers, proposed the following resolution:

“‘This meeting resolutely claims the right of parents to determine the form of religious instruction which their children are to receive in public elementary schools, and calls on Authorities, to make all reasonable provision for the protection of this right, without impairing the Trusts under which Denominational schools have been provided, or closing such schools where a sufficient number of parents require them.’

“His lordship said he was there not so much for the purpose of controversy as far the purpose of exposition. They were there, the Bishop said, to assert the parents’ right to determine the kind of religious instruction his child should receive in the public elementary schools. ‘Public opinion demands,’ said his Lordship, ‘and very rightly demands, that a parent’s right over his child shall not extend to the power of bringing his child up in ignorance. Our Church has always been in hearty accord with this principle, and has done her best for centuries to secure for all her children sound education, and the Church as a body heartily supported the idea of universal compulsory education. So the State has undertaken the work of education. But as the parents’ rights are limited, so are the rights of the State limited. The State has no right to bring up the children of Christian parents with a Godless education. Nor has a State a right to say to parents, ‘Your child shall either receive one particular form of religious instruction or the child shall receive a Godless education.’’”

End quote.

Adam: Now across the Atlantic in the United States, we really didn’t see the emergence of parents’ rights as a political concept until the early ’30s, when there was a debate around passing a child labor amendment. So in 1924, Congress passed a Child Labor Amendment to the constitution to enshrine in law basic protections against child labor. Because it was a constitutional amendment, it needed to be ratified by 3/4th of the states per Article V of the Constitution so it lingered for a while. But when FDR was elected in 1932 and the onset of The Great Depression, there was a renewed effort to get states to pass the amendment, which ultimately wasn’t passed but was kind of made void because of a subsequent law 1938. But the debate around it really shows how this concept of parents’ rights was used to frame an opposition to the bill. So this is from The New York Times from January 10, 1934, when there was a real concerted effort by Democrats, because they had the majority, they had the White House, to pass a child labor amendment enshrining child labor laws into the Constitution. Here’s the headline from January 10, 1934 in The New York Times, quote, “Opposes Child Labor Bill. Cardinal O’Connell Says It Weakens Parents’ Rights.”

“Boston, Massachusetts, January 9. Personal opposition to the child labor amendment as tending to ‘weaken the right of the States, and what is worse still, the right of parents over their children’ has been expressed by Cardinal O’Connell.

“In a letter to Alexander Lincoln of Boston, the Cardinal wrote as follows: ‘It has been brought to my attention recently that my position in regard to the child labor amendment has been misrepresented before the public.

“‘In talking with some of those who called to see me about this measure, I said that I would prefer not to engage in any public way against this measure, but that does not mean that I have changed my position, for I am personally, as always, against it. I read not only the superficial meaning of the measure but the spirit of it, and I feel that this spirit would tend in the future to weaken the rights of the States and, what is worse still, the rights of parents over their children.’

“Cardinal O’Connell left today for a month’s vacation in the Bahamas.”

End quote.

Nima: (Laughing) I love that kicker. That’s a good ending. Then he went to the Bahamas.

Adam: Yeah, and this from the Newport Mercury in March of 1934, headline reads, “Disapproved Child Labor Amendment. President McCarthy Says It Invades Parents’ Rights. Providence College Head Speaks on ‘Catholic Action’ in St. Joseph’s Hall.”

“President Lorenzo F. McCarthy of Providence College gave another in the series of ‘Catholic Action’ talks, sponsored by the Catholic Daughters of America in St. Joseph’s auditorium Thursday evening. He expressed his disapproval of the proposed child labor amendment to the constitution, claiming it ‘an invasion of parental rights and not in accord with traditional American doctrines.’”


So, here you have this idea that parents have this ultimate domain over children, they’re basically property, and that anything that says they can’t force them to work or says they can’t give them cigarettes or alcohol is a stalking horse by the far left radical secularists, at this point it was the communists, to kind of come in and take your children, right? It’s this very kind of visceral opposition.

Nima: Destroying family values and American tradition.

Adam: So it is worth noting that from the beginning of the term parents’ rights, again as a coherent concept, as a political slogan, literally just to oppose child labor and child protection laws from the beginning.

Nima: And as you can see from these first two examples, almost always, from the outset, was used in an explicitly religious context, right? The concept of parents’ rights had to do with maintaining either a religious education or invoking religion to allow children to still work in coal mines or factories because that was the will of their parents. This religious context continued in the decades to come, namely when trying to justify bans on books. In the 2022 history of the parents’ rights movement written for the Associated Press, Brooke Shultz says this, quote:

“In the 1950s, groups of parents monitored schools closely for any signs of communist infiltration. In the same decade, amid the start of desegregation, large numbers of families in the South began enrolling children in private schools rather than have them in integrated public schools. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court cited parental rights when it allowed Amish families to exempt their children from high school, in Wisconsin v. Yoder… The court acknowledged it was an exceptional case since the Amish live separately and self-sufficiently.”

As the parents rights movement gained more traction in the decades following, obviously, this kind of justification fell away, it became less important, and it just became about parental rights, not about certain communities wanting to exercise certain rights.

Adam: Yeah, of course, by parental rights, they mean right-wing busy body rights. Increasingly from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s the parental rights label was used for groups that were explicitly designed to ban books. From a New York Times article from June 3, 1971, “Book Ban is Eased by Queens Board.”

“District School Board 25 in Flushing, Queens, voted last night to adopt a compromise proposal modifying its ban on the book ‘Down These Mean Streets’ from student libraries. The ban, instigated in April, divided the board and some segments of the community, which includes parts of Flushing, Whitestone and College Point. Members of the board had objected to the book, the auto biography of Piri Thomas, because of its use of four‐letter words and descriptions of heterosexual and homosexual acts.

“Thomas McCarthy, of 160‐26 28th Avenue, Flushing, of the Committee for Parents’ rights in public education, countered: ‘we believe the heavy use of vile language in ‘Down These Mean Streets’ and its raw scenes of sex acts with homo sexuals and prostitutes make the book unsuitable for the open shelves of our Junior High school libraries.’”

So again, book banning organizations were always called the committee for parents’ rights or parents’ rights for this or that. From the Lansing State Journal in July of 1973, “Book Ban Authority Opposed.” This is from Phoenix, Arizona, the Associated Press, quote:

“State legislators have urged the Arizona Board of Education to delay adopting a policy handbook giving it power to censor textbooks…

“‘The Legislature is the lawmaking body and it cannot delegate its powers,’ Sen. Douglad Holsclaw, R-Tucson, said. ‘The board has been given powers to operate the schools but cannot legislate.’

“The Legislature killed a so-called ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ during the last session. That measure, endorsed by Jenkins, would have given parents the right to withhold their children from special education programs and granted parents access to virtually all their children’s school records.”

So again, this idea of the secular body which is a public education, right, it’s not religious, it’s not by design, because it’s a public institution, it can’t be religious, that if I find it to be too secular, I have a right as a parent to come in and assert my particular worldview on to this school.

Nima: The same held true roughly two decades later. Newt Gingrich’s 1994 Contract with America relied heavily on so-called “parents’ rights”. A pillar of the contract was The Family Reinforcement Act which they said was designed to, quote, “strengthening rights of parents in their children’s education.” The Contract for America was really kind of developed by political messaging expert, right-wing hackety-hack-hack, Frank Luntz, really based on terms that had polled well with Republican voters. Parents’ rights was found to poll really well and therefore made it into all of these policy proposals and political platforms.

Adam: As Melissa Gira Grant of The New Republic notes, the parents movement then pivoted largely to creating legal incentives and protections for religious homeschooling and publicly funded religious schooling. In her review of “parents’ rights” rhetoric in the current anti-trans panic, she notes how popular it was for the right-wing agenda of attacking public education. She wrote, quote:

“The groups and leaders who promote this anti-trans agenda are bound not just by their desire to legislate trans people out of existence but by extensive overlapping employment and interpersonal ties, consolidating their influence. Meg Kilgannon, who issued her three-point anti-trans directive at Value Voters, works at Family Research Council, after serving as the director of the Department of Education’s Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives under Trump. Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, can boast that her father, Edgar Prince, helped launch the Family Research Council, and her family’s foundations reportedly move millions in support of their allies, including ADF. And Michael Farris, a homeschooling advocate before he became the head of ADF, secretly drafted a lawsuit meant to overturn the 2020 election in favor of Trump, which was shopped around to willing attorneys general by allies like the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. When The New York Times reported this, Farris claimed these ‘Stop the Steal’ efforts had nothing to do with his work at ADF.”

End quote.

So the parents’ rights movement is a constellation of our right religious types, it has always been able to kind of morph and merge into whatever they need it to and throughout the 1990s, as our guest, Jennifer Berkshire notes, parents’ rights was used primarily to promote homeschooling and oppose basically the existence of gay people, feminism and women in education as well as any kind of anti-racism.

Nima: As Berkshire wrote for The New Republic in December of 2021, quote:

“When Pat Buchanan launched his 1996 presidential bid, he declared himself the candidate of parents. ‘You have my solemn word,’ Buchanan intoned on the stump in New Hampshire, a state he went on to win. ‘I will shut down the U.S. Department of Education, and parental rights will prevail in our public schools again.’ And yet within a few years, the issue came to be seen as a stalking horse for the religious right’s agenda of dismantling public education, and it fizzled with surprising speed. Now, as conservatives once more wave the banner of parents’ rights, the sudden demise of a potent political issue 30 years ago offers some valuable lessons.

“The question of who should call the shots when it comes to children’s upbringing — parents or the state — has simmered for nearly 500 years, since Massachusetts enacted the first education law in the colonies. But when the debate flared anew in the 1990s, it was spurred by a rising religious right and a conservative movement that sought to meld the fury of the culture wars with anti-government sentiment. The precipitating events occurred in 1993, when parents in New York City successfully ousted the chief of the city’s schools over a plan to distribute condoms to elementary schoolers and to adopt the so-called Rainbow Curriculum, which featured books such as Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. These outrages resembled others across the country. Conservatives were incensed by their conviction that public schools were teaching “secular humanism,” the precursor to today’s critical race theory. Wherever they looked, they saw evidence that the traditional family was under siege. And while many of their specific demands were old — to ban books, allow prayer in schools, and institute school vouchers — the movement coursed with new energy. ‘The parents’ revolt is under way,’ wrote Bill Kristol and Jay Lefkowitz in 1993, warning that parents would soon prove as great a threat to the liberal establishment as had the anti-tax backlash of the 1970s. Indeed, the furor was an extension of that earlier movement, the writers argued: ‘It builds on and deepens a populist rebellion against the liberal bureaucratic state.’

End quote.

Adam: Since 2019, “parents’ rights’’ as a rallying cry has exploded in popularity. It is being used as a framework for protesting against covid measures, attacking teachers seeking safer work places, anti-trans and anti-gay panic, and pushing back on the so-called “critical race theory,” which is basically any acknowledgement that the US has a history of racism in public textbooks, public curriculum and books at public libraries. This parents’ rights framing is very popular with the right-wing media. Washington Times from December of 2021, headline reads, “Parents’ rights group files racism complaint against NYC schools.” Fox News October of 2022, “Parents rights group files complaint alleging casting of a school play violates the Civil Rights Act.” Daily Caller March 2022, headline reads, “Elite Massachusetts Boarding School Separates Kids As Young As 5 Into Race-Based Identity Groups, Parents’ Rights Group Says.”

But it’s not just the right-wing label. It uncritically and without scare quotes can oftentimes seep into so-called mainstream media. Just some examples over the past couple of months. This from the mainstream education website Chalkbeat from November of 2020, quote, “Local school board races this election season were rife with debates about culture war and parents’ rights issues. How did the candidates pushing those debates fare?” USA Today, November of 2020, quote, “Support for parents’ rights candidates was underwhelming, while campaigns promising more education funding and school choice secured victories.” USA Today consistently frames this binary between people who want more education funding, and those who support parents’ rights. Again, no scare quotes. From the same month, “These PACS are funding ‘parents’ rights advocates’ running for local school board positions.” Miami Herald November of 2022 as well, quote, “one of the shifts facing districts is how education and parents’ rights have become a national concern instead of a local one”. From a local ABC affiliate in Alabama from December of 2022, quote, “Parents’ rights took the spotlight in communities across the United States this year, as local school board meetings were dominated by parents seeking accountability from administrators over a wide range of issues.” They’re just parents seeking accountability, right? The Virginian-Pilot, a mainstream publication in Virginia, from January of this year, quote, “‘Parents rights’ in schools appears to be a focus of upcoming Virginia legislative session.”

So, when you frame this as an issue of parents’ rights, you really launder, obviously, and delude the real motivations at work here, and while not every mainstream publication does it, New York Times doesn’t really do it, but a lot of local publications, local media, television media routinely adopts this framing of parents’ rights without much criticism. Sometimes later in paragraph 17 they’ll say, you know, ‘This particular parents rights group is right leaning or conservative,’ but there’s this idea that there’s this organic, bottom up, parents’ rights, quote-unquote “movement,” much like school choice, it’s really funded by a handful of right-wing billionaires — like the Scaifes, like the Kochs, like the Waltons, like DeVos — there’s a huge constellation of groups that use the parents’ rights label, who, again, are not representative of parents per se and other liberal media have adopted, without necessarily using the label uncritically, have adopted the framework, which we talked about on the show actually before in a News Brief from January of last year, while they didn’t explicitly use the term parents’ rights, certain mainstream media have oftentimes discussed right-wing attacks on teachers and teachers unions as parents versus teachers.

From January 8, 2022 article in The New York Times, the headline read, “As More Teachers’ Unions Push for Remote Schooling, Parents Worry. So Do Democrats.” But what is the empirical basis that somehow the parents were against these measures against teachers, the article didn’t provide any, didn’t provide any polling, it didn’t do a survey, didn’t ask them. You see this routinely with the quote-unquote “school choice debate,” parents are framed as being against teachers, right? There’s this mysterious cohort of parents who have this particular right-wing agenda, and they’re said to represent, I guess all parents, most parents, many parents, 10 percent of parents, 20 percent of parents? I don’t know. But they’re the ones who show up to meetings, and those are the ones who get outside funding and get outside, again, these organizations that we mentioned earlier, they fund PR, they fund press, they obviously build up alliances with existing electeds, the local level and school boards and community boards and city boards, and they’re just sort of seen as this nebulous parent group, because if you say, right-wing parent group or conservative parent group, they get really mad and they say, ‘Well, that’s not true.’

Nima: White grievance politics parent group.

Adam: Right, and that sort of doesn’t sound good. And then in January 23, 2023, The New York Times again played into this parents versus the evil sinister secular institutions with another article that was widely criticized by LGBTQ activists sensationalizing and not providing a ton of context about students who transition in school without telling their parents. The article was headlined, “When Students Change Gender Identity, and Parents Don’t Know.” The subhead, “Educators are facing wrenching new tensions over whether they should tell parents when students socially transition at school.” The article did not mention any parents who were perfectly fine with it. So the parents who would be okay with that or parents who would support that don’t matter. What matters is the parents who are conservative or right-wing become this sort of generic parent label.

Nima: It also relies on, I mean, a fundamental contradiction. I mean, you know, not to hypocrisy monger here Adam, but if some parents don’t want certain books taught in class, don’t want certain subjects taught in a certain way, don’t want their children to know a certain kind of, say, accurate history of the United States, they are seen as advocating for parental rights. But then we don’t hear, as you’ve been saying, we don’t hear all the parents that fundamentally want those things as part of their children’s education. Where are those parents’ rights to say, ‘No, no, I actually think that my kid should wear a mask during a global pandemic’?

Adam: No, no, no, no, but you don’t matter, you know. If you’re a liberal, progressive, if you’re the father or mother of an LGBTQ kid, if you’re Jewish, Muslim, you don’t matter.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. Right. So it’s like, there’s the silencing of the parents who actually are in favor of these things or think that, say, the educators, the professional educators, the teachers who have committed their lives and careers to teaching your fucking kids, might have some sort of idea about what they’re doing or might take the care to teach things that are important for kids to learn, and offer up ways that other viewpoints can come into play. Now, of course, that can also go to the extent where we’ve seen parental rights advocates saying that there should be both sides taught about the Holocaust.

Adam: Well, both sides, but what are the both sides of slavery too? It’s very popular now because parents have rights.

Nima: Now, exactly whose parents’ rights are actually being affected here? And this movement, with its big donors, has real life political implications. In the middle of last year, June 2022, Bella DiMarco, policy analyst for the website FutureEd wrote that, quote:

“FutureEd has identified 84 bills in 26 states pre-filed or introduced this year alone that seek to expand parents’ rights in schools. So far, six have been enacted, two in Florida, two in Arizona and one in Georgia and Louisiana. One more bill in Kansas has cleared the legislature and awaits the governor’s signature. Some expand or amend existing ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ while others establish such a bill for the state.”

End quote.

Adam: What you see right now happening with Governor Ron DeSantis, there are now teachers, this from Popular Information, a recent article by Judd Legum login details how using a series of social media posts and other reporting from local reporters, showing that teachers are now removing books from classrooms because they fear felony prosecution. It is a felony now to have unsanctioned books in a school library. So now there’s viral videos and several schools have basically empty bookshelves because of Governor Ron DeSantis, who’s kind of the king of parents’ rights rhetoric, right? Every single bill he does to go after trans people or secularism or public education is framed as parents’ rights, and now you have this dystopian reality, where literally, bookshelves are empty because the criteria for what is and what isn’t considered not woke or groomer-ish or pornographic is so vague, that every single book now has to be sent by a state auditor to audit it, look at it, and then they send it back to the school, and this is the logical end of the current we’ve been tracking in the last 30, 40 minutes, right, that this is the endpoint. From the book bans to sort of religiosity in schools, it’s always framed as this innocuous organic movement, but it’s not because if it was organic it wouldn’t need so many billionaire backers.

Nima: So before we get to our guest, Jennifer Berkshire, we should point out that some liberal organizations are kind of onto this and are pushing back against the right’s sole ownership of the term “parents’ rights.” So kind of a resting back of control of the language used to, you know, motivate people, to inspire people to believe in one thing or another. So this is an article from November 1, 2022, written by Libby Stanford, in Education Week, headlined, “These Groups Are Pushing Back Against ‘Divisive’ Parents’ Rights Policies.” The article says this, quote:

“The organizations, led by the National Association for Family, School, and Community Engagement, a professional membership organization focused on family engagement, have all signed on to the ‘Healing the Growing Divide’ initiative, which aims to provide a counterpoint to themes that have dominated the parents’ rights movements of the past two years. Members of the groups pushing back say they aren’t against parents’ rights as a concept, but have growing concerns over how the term has been used to support policies such as bans on books, efforts to censor classroom instruction about so-called divisive concepts like race, gender, and sexuality, and efforts to exclude transgender and other marginalized students from school-related activities.

“‘You’re never going to hear our organization suggesting anything other than the fact that parents have an important role in their child’s education,’ said Vito Borrello, executive director of NAFSCE. ‘But what we believe is happening right now is a lot of these parental rights bills are focused on censorship, they’re focused on book banning, they’re focused on exclusion, they’re focused on culture wars and political perspectives. And they’re focused on dividing parents and teachers.’ Through the initiative, NAFSCE hopes to stand against ‘exclusionary narratives that deploy divisive tactics,’ according to its announcement about the initiative. For example, the group is standing against policies that use one group of families to speak out on issues that attack or exclude other students and families; use families as ‘watchdogs’ against educators; and force educators to exclude or stifle the inclusion of students and families due to their race, sexual orientation, or gender identity through restrictions on curriculum, the language they’re allowed to use, and other teaching practices.”

End quote.

Adam: So basically, psycho religious bigots don’t have the monopoly on being parents, despite what they think, again, despite their view of every left-wing or liberal or even centrist or secularist being a sort of a lone, sad, no children, whatever kind of cliche they have in their head, like left-wing people, liberal people, progressive people, trans people, gay people, immigrants, minorities, Black people, everybody who is not their, you know, insular world, they have kids, and they’ve got to go to school or they’re close to someone who has kids go to school and they have a right to say what exists in their education and their curriculum as well, and they certainly have a right to maintain the secular nature of public education, and they too should have a voice in what our education is and to keep it secular and non-sectarian.

Nima: To talk about this more, we’re now going to be joined by Jennifer Berkshire, teacher, writer and co-host of the education podcast, Have You Heard. Her analysis of education and politics has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The Baffler and The New York Times. Her most recent book is A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, co-authored with Jack Schneider and published by The New Press in 2020. A new paperback edition comes out this March. Jennifer is going to join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are now joined by Jennifer Berkshire. Jennifer, it is so amazing to have you back on Citations Needed. You were our very first guest ever, literally the pilot episode in July 2017, and now you are back. So welcome back to Citations Needed.

Jennifer Berkshire: Well, thanks so much for having me, and, you know, I can’t believe that it’s been that long, and as your most devoted listeners will recall, our topic for that episode was charter schools, and as it happens, you know, there is a sneaky case making its way up to the Supreme Court right now where we’re basically waiting for the Supreme Court to tell us that charter schools are — wait for it — actually private.

Adam: Oh, wow, we got to do a follow up on that. That was our first episode. So obviously, it has a very special place in our heart, as does the topic of charter schools, which of course, overlaps greatly with this topic, as we’ve discussed at the top of the show. So thank you for that segue, and we definitely look forward to that Supreme Court ruling, assuming it doesn’t come out by the time you’re listening to this. I know these things are quite mysterious. It’s like choosing a pope, you get like some smoke, and then your whole rights either go away or they stay. You’re never given new ones though, it’s only bad or neutral news.

So, I want to sort of talk about this framing of so-called parental rights, which definitely informs much of the charter school movement as well, but now is expanded to kind of whatever sort of reactionary assault on the public institution of education is. You write that it’s, quote, “a right-wing stalking horse,” which I thought was a sort of perfect summation of the cliche, “parental rights.” I want to begin by discussing, it’s a term that’s been around, as you know, for a very long time, but it became more potent, more acute and more popularized in the 1990s as a kind of GOP wedge issue against the liberal state, specifically education and teachers’ unions, teachers’ unions, of course, being not only something they hate for ideological reasons, but also a very huge important constituency of the Democratic Party, right? So it’s kind of a win-win for them to go after that. You write that quote:

“​​Heath Brown, a professor of public policy at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the author of Homeschooling the Right: How Conservative Education Activism Erodes the State, argued that the emergence of parental rights as an animating issue in the 1990s can be traced to antipathy toward the Clintons. ‘It’s not a coincidence,’ he suggested, ‘that you see parental rights emerging at the same time that the conservative movement is starting to target Hillary.’”

Which I thought was a really great framing because it did kind of tie into this idea that there was this, you say before there was critical race theory there was secular humanism, was the boogey word. Can we talk about its origins and its modern iteration in the ’90s — I know it sort of predates it but I want to kind of start the clock there because I don’t want to go back forever — how it became a really successful pitch and how it was kind of tied to this broader concept of deteriorating family values?

Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah, I mean, I think people would be really surprised to go back in our time machines to the ’90s, and recognize immediately just how similar the debate is that all the same terms were being thrown around, and while the specific charges were a little bit different, you know, they were worried about videos, you know, in VCRs, as opposed to TikTok, but the larger charges were all the same, and when you think about the Hillary Clinton angle, it makes a lot of sense. What was her book called? It Takes a Village. That is exactly the view of the world that they are railing against, that village is out to undercut the authority of the family, and you know, people probably don’t remember that parent rights was actually a plank in the Contract for America, and so this was a big deal, this was a major organizing push within the conservative movement, and they really had a very well developed plan to enshrine parent rights language in every state constitution, and so I think we can learn a lot by going back and looking at how many parallels there are, but also why that particular movement blew up.

Jennifer Berkshire

Nima: Yeah, I’d love to get into a bit more of this ’90s history, as a ’90s kid myself, I love being taken back to those heady salad days, but specifically, can you tell us a bit about the 1996 Colorado effort to enshrine a so-called quote-unquote “parents’ rights bill.” I don’t know if most folks know that actually went back that long, and how did this effort really show that, when taken to its logical end, this parents’ rights framing inevitably leads to religious bullying, child abuse and a patchwork of very contradictory parental preferences.

Jennifer Berkshire: So just a little more context for what was going on. So you had a lot of talk about parent rights coming down from the national level, and, right now, you know, we really have a strong sense that there’s this through line from Pat Buchanan in the ’90s, to the current day Republican Party. Well, a big piece of that was parent rights. When he announced his campaign in New Hampshire in ’96, he made a big push for parental rights, and so you saw this, not just happening in the sort of, you know, the discourse level, but there was stuff happening in every state, but almost, you know, what would happen is that the more people got to see for themselves, where the sort of feel good language lead, the more suspicious they would get of the cause, that it’s one thing to talk in very general terms about parental rights, it is another thing to start talking about banning the books, or rolling back the rights of gays and lesbians, which were in the ’90s, were very much being fought over. What happened was that in multiple states, these efforts fell short, you know, much to the disappointment of the groups that were leading the charge, and there were some very familiar names, you’ll recognize one of them, it was Betsy DeVos. So they decided that what they would do, because they were falling short at the state level, was to put all of their eggs in the Colorado basket, they would put a referendum up for vote, and they would amend the Colorado constitution, and they were convinced that they would be successful, and then after that they would really run the table, and they would amend state constitutions across the land, and they would enshrine language, basically just saying that, you know, parents have the right to direct the health and education of their children, and so it played out in exactly the way that I described. It starts out as a sort of general campaign, it’s polling really well, and the more people get a sense of what that’s actually going to mean, for schools, but also in the case of Colorado, for private businesses, that just as we’re hearing today, that extreme Republicans aren’t just interested in seeing the books pulled from the school library, you know, they also want to keep Barnes and Nobles from selling the book. Well, that’s exactly what was happening in Colorado, and so this, you know, sort of general pitch for parent rights that no one could disagree with, really became divisive, and you know, by the time the vote was held, it went down to crushing defeat.

Adam: Again, you talked about how it sort of, like a lot of these political slogans, polls really well, I’m sure this was a Frank Luntz creation, to some extent in terms of how to focus because he designed the messaging of the 1984 Contract with America, again, also extremely great marketing, right? But then when you kind of get specifics, it’s like, wait, wait a second, which parents are we talking about here? And the parents’ rights angle has kind of been adopted by a lot of media wholesale. It’s kind of uncritically adopted as this framing because it’s like pro life. How can you be anti-life? How can you be anti-parents’ rights? The idea of forfeiting your children over to the state, it gives people the image of the movie The Killing Fields, right? Where the Khmer Rouge has a stick figure drawing of a family and crosses it out, and while the intercom says, you know, this is the year zero, your family is now the state. That’s kind of the image they’re trying to convey, right? And then when you drill down in specifics, it gets a little dicey, because of course, what parents? The New York Times loves to use this framing of parents versus teachers, but they don’t say which ones and then when you look at polling it’s like actually, parents are very divided on these key questions, and it’s become, like you talked about, it’s become a kind of right-wing skeleton key. It’s used for quote-unquote “trans issues,” which is to say anti-trans bigotry. It’s used for, like you said, anti-gay bigotry. It’s used for charter schools. It’s used for anti-COVID measures. It’s anti-teachers’ union. It can kind of be used for whatever you want it to be because it’s so goddamn generic. So if you could, I want you to talk about this framing of parental rights. Is there a poll? Which parents are these? It seems like this is a classic kind of, I don’t want to say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, it’s more like the wheel with a lot of money gets the grease, it’s obviously an issue of astroturf to a large extent. Can you talk about how this kind of vagaries, you know, this genericness lends itself to pretty much smuggling in whatever kind of right-wing hobby horse one wants to smuggle in?

Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, and it’s not just that things are being smuggled in, but things that are really unpopular are being smuggled in. So just like we saw in the ’90s, when you actually break down the specifics of the policy items that are under this sort of feel good, generic rubric of parent rights, you know, they get less and less popular so there is no issue that brings together Americans like their opposition to book banning, and we saw this play out in the midterm elections that candidates from really every level, when they would embrace the most extreme aspects of this parental rights rhetoric, they ended up getting crushed, and I’m talking about these were like gubernatorial candidates in states, including Michigan, in Wisconsin, in Pennsylvania, it didn’t get as much attention as things like, you know, the election denialism, but that was a huge aspect of what happened, and a big part of that was that they were running on policy items that are actually really unpopular. And we should talk about the media framing of all this, because I have a theory that I want to try out on you. The parents’ rights story has never really made sense. We’re supposed to believe that what happened was that parents first of all had a chance, they got a peek into what their kids’ education actually look like, because of the pandemic, and you know, they were furious. But then their next demand was to reopen schools. So why is that? Well, that seems a little contradictory. If your complaint is that little Adam is being indoctrinated, why would your first move be to reopen schools? But that’s what happened. And then from that initial demand about school reopening came a whole host of anti-COVID mitigation measures, and then these more and more extreme cultural issues, so that you went from being a school reopener to wanting to ban critical race theory, social emotional learning, now you’re obsessed with trans issues, and you’re pushing for really extreme language that essentially gives you the option to deny the existence of a trans kid because it violates your religion. So we are lumping together an awful lot of things there into a narrative that doesn’t hold a lot of water, and my theory is that the reason that the press and prominent pundits in particular have been so gullible about this, is that we know that they were out of step with the public on the issue of school closing, we’ve seen poll after poll after poll that the strong majorities of parents, as awful as the pandemic was, they more or less thought that their local schools did the right thing. But we also know that pundits loudly disagreed with that, and I think that that has made them very susceptible to arguments by these parent rights groups who end up, just like you’re saying, like they have a skeleton key, and they’re using it — I’m going to mix my metaphor here — but they’re using it to sort of, you know, open the door to really extreme policy agendas, including now basically, the idea that, well, we shouldn’t actually have public schools.

Nima: Well, right. I mean, so much of this comes down to just an aggressive, blatant attack on the public school system, right? And yet, it’s so contradictory, as you’ve been saying, Jennifer, polling, I mean, as you were mentioning, polling, if you ask folks, if they like public education, it’s like, ‘Sort of,’ but do you like your kids’ school locally? And they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, love it.’ They’re so supportive, and the teachers are great, you know, hovering somewhere around like 80 percent popularity, and, you know, it’s almost like that people like their congressperson, but they hate quote-unquote “Congress” writ large, right?

Adam: Right. People hate shit in the abstract, but the reality is, when they actually interface that they actually like it.

Nima: Right, they actually like it, and so you know, kind of to dig a little further into the media component here, you actually teach in the journalism program at Boston College, and so it’s not just your analysis of education and politics, but also this media component that I really want to keep kind of going a little deeper on in that, as you’ve been saying, there are all these things that are actually popular with people, and yet the media has decided writ large, corporate media largely, and right-wing media certainly, to establish this false parity between, say parental rights advocates, and well, on the other side, what teachers, right, so there’s parents versus teachers, but it’s also parental rights as being equally cared for, equally influential as those who actually don’t see things in that way, and so who do you think actually holds the power here? I mean, you know, you’ve said that banning books is one of the least popular things in this country, and yet, there are still many, many school districts that ban books, many, you know, attacks on libraries, and so who is wielding the power? Is it school boards? Is it local governments? Why do these things still happen when actually, publicly, the parents and communities writ large do not favor these things?

Jennifer Berkshire: Well, you can certainly look at all kinds of school board elections, including elections covering whole states where you’ve seen the public, you’ve seen parents, you’ve seen teachers and communities really band together and say, ‘No thank you, absolutely not,’ and part of the culpability in the sort of media framing that we’ve been talking about is how little coverage that stuff actually gets. I’ll give you an example. You know there was a story that got an unbelievable amount of coverage, it was a ProPublica piece, and I think they do fantastic work, but it was a story about a Black DEI director who had been hounded out of her job in Georgia, and then the angry white parents basically chased her out of her next job, too. And, you know, I saw, you know, everyone I knew was passing that story around, because it confirms everything we know right now about how awful people are. But I didn’t see anybody paying attention to the fact that the people who lived in the town then voted overwhelmingly against those parents when they ran for school board. That tells me that we are really missing something. But it also tells me that the, you know, the media, they love the scenes of the screaming parents, and the sort of worst stories, and I think the problem is that you are not getting coverage of really important things that are happening right now that, you know, state after state you see Republicans pushing through these enormous private school voucher programs. Another one, we’re having this conversation in the third week of January, another big program just went through in Iowa last night, you know, it’s going to cost something like $350 million a year. It’s just a tax subsidy for wealthy parents who already send their kids to religious, private schools, and we’re not getting adequate coverage of this as a political issue, as an economic issue because, you know, instead, the media impulse is to say, ‘Well, there are some parents who had a really bad experience during the pandemic, and this program could help them,’ and it’s like, actually, they’re making a huge structural change that is going to be devastating and we need to have serious coverage.

Nima: So, speaking about the media focus on this, I want to actually reference something you wrote in response to a Wall Street Journal editorial, literally the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal wrote in November of last year, of 2022, about the results of the then recent midterms, and basically the claim of this editorial is how parents’ rights advocates really were winning elections, and you noted that if you actually look at what happened, that might not be that true. Can you talk about the media framework of oh, parents’ rights advocates are actually very popular unless you actually make that a central component of your campaign, and then you don’t win, but we don’t talk about that, of course, where groups like the 1776 Project fall in really pushing parental rights as a political wedge issue that then may or may not be that successful.

Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah. I mean, obviously the Wall Street Journal represents one extreme, and you know, it’s interesting, the extent to which these, what you think of as conservative groups have gone all in on this, not just parent rights, right? It’s not just sort of giving parents more power to shape and limit what their kids are exposed to, but the real trend in conservative education policy is that we’re just going to give money directly to parents, and we’re going to let them do whatever they want with it with no oversight, and so there’s just a supreme irony right now that as you’re hearing Republicans in DC sort of lecture and hector about debt and too much spending, that these enormous voucher programs are being enacted in places like Iowa, but they’re, you know, they’re coming down the pike in all these states, Florida is up next, Texas is coming, and they’re set up by design so that you can’t see where the money goes. Parents are encouraged to spend the money, education expenses are defined incredibly broadly, but the whole idea is, it’s a black box, you’ll never know where the money’s going, and so there is enormous money and power driving all of this stuff, but it is not backed up by popular support, that there is a reason why, you know, in Iowa they only debated their big new voucher program for five hours. The longer this stuff is in front of the public, the worse it fares. That’s never put up for a vote. And during the midterms, when you actually saw candidates who ran on this stuff like Tudor Dixon in Michigan, like Michaels in Wisconsin, like Mastriano in Pennsylvania, they did not do well, because actually the idea that we’re going to phase out public schools, and that you’re just, you know, instead you’re going to give people some portion of their state funding, but you know, it’ll never be enough to pay the full freight, and so then what they’re going to have to take out loans for the rest? This is a deeply unpopular vision. It’s basically the education equivalent of running on making cuts to Social Security and Medicare. So you think, wow, this would be a real opening for the Democrats, but somehow, they never seem to be able to quite get there.

Nima: Yeah, shocking.

Adam: Well, right. A lot of liberals kind of support a lot of the ends, as we again talked about on episode one, right? They support charter schools in a kind of soft version, they support anti quote-unquote “critical race theory” stuff, they support a lot of anti-trans stuff, the sort of New York Times crowd does, but they kind of don’t want to admit it, and so they kind of adopt the uncritically just as like, again, the New York Times does this profile on sort of trans kids being, there’s a conspiracy to keep you away from your, you don’t have to, not disclosing your trans status to your parents, right? It’s sort of this really red meat kind of moral panic stuff about the evil secular humanist in school effectively kidnapping and brainwashing your children into the left-wing ideology. Michigan, this shit is, when you start to break it down it’s unpopular, but it kind of has this visceral hook for the foaming masses crowd and liberals can oftentimes, like you said, play into that. And I want to sort of, I guess, talk about this idea that, and this has been part of this debate, and we talked about it at the top of the show, this idea that like effectively children or parents’ property, and the state has no, there’s no such thing as kind of civic or secular education for its own sake, that every little line item in the textbook needs to get a unanimous approval by every single parent, it needs to comport with every parent’s ideology. This strikes me as, like you said, quite dubious, and really what they have is they have a sort of set of laws they have ready to pass, like you said, like 1776, all these groups, that they’re willing to kind of jam down people’s throats at the drop of a hat, and so we spent the better part of 45 minutes reading off all these media frameworks that accepted this parental rights framework. What framework would you think they should use if you had to be somewhat prescriptive? Instead of saying, parents rights groups or parents groups or sometimes they’ll show like a photo of, you know, in the suburbs of Virginia, saying, ‘Parents rights groups are mad about COVID,’ what would be a frame you would use? I mean, my mind you, I would say you sort of you’re just clear about what their ideological proclivities are, and not be coy about it.

Jennifer Berkshire: Yeah, and especially since a lot of them are very eager to talk about their end goals. So there was this big flap because there was somebody in Utah, which yet another state that’s on the cusp of passing an enormous private school voucher program, one of the groups that’s involved, the woman basically, you know, says on tape, that well, you know, of course, her goal is to destroy public education. She actually had to issue an apology that was reported in the Salt Lake paper, and it’s rare that you actually get to hear the quiet part just blurted out that way but you don’t have to poke around very far to find out what the objectives of these groups actually are. And so yes, I would absolutely make sure that people understand that. I think it’s important to understand where the money is coming from without getting so deep into the weeds that you lose sight of the larger story, and anything that can be done to help people understand just how extreme this vision is. Because I feel like that’s really getting lost, because the media frame with anything having to do with education is always centered on education as a consumable product that leads you to career success down the road, and most of the people who are doing the reporting, that is the view of education they were steeped in, and they are the beneficiaries of that vision, and so it’s almost impossible for them to imagine any other way to conceive of it, and so, somehow, they end up telling a story about, you know, well, this individual parent she’s kind of unhappy with the fact that the teacher knew that her daughter has gender questions, and they make stuff that turns out to be actually quite extreme seem reasonable and meritocratic, and that’s where we really start to run into problems.

Adam: And of course, mysteriously when some school district in Oakland wants to teach about Black history or reparations, those particular parents’ rights don’t matter at all. Because really, that’s not what they care about, right?

Nima: Well, right. It’s only when it’s opposed, right?

Adam: Angry white suburban mom. Yeah.

Nima: So Jennifer, how much of this parents’ rights, I mean, the kind of media storytelling but also the hysteria over it, even when it, you know, appeals to certain, I guess, small segments of the population with that an outsize media footprint, but, you know, how much of this is born of making the anecdotal sound systemic.

Jennifer Berkshire: So, the funny thing about our education system is because it’s so decentralized, you know, very different from most other countries in the world, you actually have to work really hard to find a villain. It’s why you hear, you know, people obsessively going after somebody like Randi Weingarten, who’s the president of the American Federation of Teachers, or the way that the right has obsessed for years over the Federal Department of Education, which actually has very little authority over your state and local schools, because power and authority are so diffuse, it means that the anecdote can do a lot of work, and it’s really hard to find somebody to blame, and that combination, fueled by social media, has turned out to be really, really toxic, and I think that’s a big difference between our current moment and what we were talking about in terms of the ’90s. There were all sorts of anecdotes in the ’90s, they were a little bit different, you know, like parents complaining that kids were writing diaries in New Hampshire or that there was a project where they had to write their own epithet for their grave. There were always anecdotes, and there were groups, you know, Phyllis Schlafly’s group collected anecdotes, that’s what they did. They collected outraged anecdotes from parents, but the difference was that you didn’t have the kind of social media fueled grievance machine —

Adam: Libs of TikTok. Yeah.

Jennifer Berkshire: You didn’t have the same level of grift. That’s a big deal that so much of this is about figuring out a way to harvest outrage to fuel the grift, and a lot of these, if you look at the first wave of parent rights bills that were passed over the last year or so, and I’m lumping into that a lot of different, it could be the anti-critical race theory, now it’s stuff related to gender and don’t say gay, but a lot of those bills have built into them, you know, parents are actually encouraged to sue their local school districts, even teachers, and obviously, that has a chilling effect on the schools and the people who work in them. But it also, you know, think of it, it’s constantly producing new grist for the outrage machine.

Adam: Yeah, because there’s millions and millions of teacher interactions every day, you can just mind, it’s sort of what the Koch brothers do with campus crazy sophomores at Oberlin, right? You have a snitch network effectively, where you can get paid to find stuff that’s superficially outrageous, even though like 95 percent of the cases you look at them and it’s totally distorted, right? Sometimes some idiot does something, but it’s pretty rare.

Jennifer Berkshire: And then every lawsuit gets reported on.

Adam: Right.

Jennifer Berkshire: And so there are groups now, incredibly well funded groups, I’m thinking of one called Parents Defending Education, that all they do is file lawsuits, and so that every time they do that, it gets media coverage, and then that brings new people into their political project, and it fuels new outrage, and so that’s why I think we’re in a different more dangerous moment.

Nima: Well, Jennifer, this has been great. Before we let you go, tell our listeners, please — it’s been a while since we’ve spoken to you, bt we’re thrilled that you’re back — tell our listeners what you’re up to now, what you’re working on, and of course, don’t forget to mention that the paperback of your book, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door is coming out in March. What can folks look forward to if they pick that book up? If they haven’t already, which I’m sure they all have.

Jennifer Berkshire: They can look forward to a new preface that my co author Jack Schneider and I wrote where we grapple with some of the things that we got wrong, that we actually underestimated just how severe the threat to public education was going to be, and we are embarking on writing a follow up, and we’re really going to try to help people understand how what we’re seeing with respect to education is part of this sort of great civil rights rollback, and I think it’s going to be very eye-opening, although somewhat depressing to write.

Adam: Eye-opening and depressing is our brand so we appreciate that.

Nima: And of course, you know that better than anyone else as our first ever guest and now back with us, Jennifer, this has been wonderful. We’ve been speaking with Jennifer Berkshire, teacher, writer and co-host of the education podcast, Have You Heard. Her analysis of education and politics has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, The Baffler and The New York Times. Her most recent book is A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, co-authored with Jack Schneider and published originally in 2020 by The New Press. Lookout for the updated paperback, which will hit stores this March. Jennifer has been joining us from her home base in Gloucester, Massachusetts and Jennifer we cannot thank you enough for joining us yet again on Citations Needed. We need to have you back sooner than five and a half years next time.

Jennifer Berkshire: Thanks so much. And I’ll see you in 2028.

Adam: You got it.


Adam: Yeah, you know, it’s funny we, I just feel like so much of the show is we’re just doing different versions of bircherism every five years, like it just gets rebranded. I remember that it was the 2021 off year election in Virginia, where they had all these, it was the first like, quote-unquote “post COVID election” really, and there was all these articles about the parents’ rights movements and parents in Virginia have sent a message to Democrats blah, blah, blah, and I just remember thinking —

Nima: Oh yeah, Youngkin, sure.

Adam: Yeah, the great Youngkin. I was like, this is, they kept talking about parents and parents and grandparents, like this isn’t new. This is this diversion that we just do different versions of John Bircherism, we just rebrand it every two, three, four or five years in different contexts, and of course there’s different, it’s all a bunch of stuff in motion, they have so much money to play with and it’s all house money, right? None of these people work for a living, they write like four op-eds a year.

Nima: And they’re the executive director of the Parents Institute for Child Protection and Anti-Teacher Union —

Adam: Yeah, whatever. Parents Institute for Fucking Over Poor People. The laziest motherfuckers in the world. The right-wing think tank world is the biggest welfare state on Earth, and we keep sort of doing the same thing. You know, I asked Jim Neureckas once at FAIR, ‘Jim, how do you keep basically writing the same article all the time?’ He’s like, ‘Well, they keep doing the same shit all the time.’ You know, a fireman puts out fires, that is what he does, and so when you see this every single time there’s a, whether it’s the Tea Party astroturf or whether it’s the latest iteration of anti-woke, it’s just we reinvent variations of Bircherism with slight differences in emphasis, but it’s the same, appealing to the same kind of reptilian part of our brain, the same demagoguery, the same racism, the same hatred and disgust of women, the same hatred and disgust of queer people. We always act, The New York Times, the great parents movement, DeSantis’ woke thing, this new thing and it’s like it’s the same shit, because they have the memory of goldfish. They never give the history, they don’t give the history of the parents’ rights movement, you know, except for —

Nima: Pro-slavery people called it states rights for a reason.

Adam: Right, because it sounds good, and again, it’s just the difference, we’re just going to keep doing different versions of this and the targets of their attacks are always more or less the same. Again, labor, women, Black people, and so you know, just another day at the office I guess at the Citations Needed plant, just punching the clock.

Nima: Putting out the Bircher fire again.

Adam: The same dumb bullshit every time.

Nima: Well that will do it for this episode of putting out the John Bircher fire of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone again. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, February 8, 2023.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.