Republican presidential hopefuls have begun casting themselves as impassioned defenders of “parental rights,” turning schoolbooks and curricula, doctors’ offices, and sports leagues into a new political battleground as they work to distinguish themselves ahead of the 2024 GOP primary.
The issue had already emerged as a major vein in the GOP bloodstream, emanating partly from the coronavirus pandemic, when school closures and vaccine mandates upended family routines and rankled vaccine-hesitant parents. But it took off after Republicans watched Glenn Youngkin defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election following a campaign that placed “parents’ rights” at its center.
While critics have denounced the theme of parents’ rights as oppressive, 2024 Republicans have nevertheless plowed ahead, seeking to one-up each other with provocative campaign pledges and legislative actions – the most obvious moves in recent weeks coming from former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Several Republican governors – many with presidential ambitions – responded to Youngkin’s success by championing parental rights in their states, enacting bills that give parents and guardians unfettered access to school curricula, books and learning materials, and, in some instances, requiring school principals to review parental complaints about textbooks and lesson plans before they can proceed with using the material in classrooms. In some states, such as Texas, Florida and Iowa, parental permission is now needed to discuss certain topics with students. Other states, such as Georgia, have put parents and school communities in charge of vetting books their children could encounter at school for signs of race-related or sexual themes, appealing to conservatives who have voiced concerns about “radical” literature.
But Republicans have also since turned parents’ rights into an umbrella term for a host of cultural issues. Declaring that parents deserve a say in what their children are taught, some GOP power players have pushed to end diversity and equity programs in public schools. Others have sought to restrict lessons about sexual orientation or gender identity. And some have looked to prevent schools from using a child’s preferred pronouns without parental permission.
“We saw it with Youngkin’s race, and [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis has been playing it up for the last year. The issue has been building from Covid and extended to where we are now,” said Jennifer Williams, who in 2016 became the first openly transgender delegate to the Republican National Convention. Both DeSantis and Youngkin are said to be eyeing 2024 presidential campaigns.
The sprint to get ahead on the issue is likely to play out over a combative presidential primary, while allies and advisers see it as an opportunity to appeal to a broader electorate if their candidate becomes the next GOP presidential nominee.
“There are more parents than teachers, so it’s an easy equation. If you’re on the side of parents, that’s going to win you at the local level, and it’s going to win you at the national level,” said Keith Naughton, a longtime Republican consultant. Still, he also cautioned Republicans against “moving too far away from the consensus.”
But public opinion around parental rights remains murky.
A Quinnipiac poll released in February 2022 found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans considered efforts to ban books in schools and libraries purely political, versus 15 percent who said the efforts stemmed from content concerns. And as Republicans confront sensitive issues such as transgender rights while championing what they describe as parental empowerment, they could face similar political peril. A separate November poll by Marquette University Law School found that while a majority of Republicans (82%-18%) believed transgender athletes should be prohibited from participating in sports competitions – a topic the GOP has devoted much attention to in recent years – independent voters were nearly evenly split on the matter. The same survey showed that Republicans favored the 2020 Supreme Court decision that the 1964 Civil Rights Act bars employers from discriminating against gay and transgender workers by a 47-point margin, underscoring the political risks 2024 GOP hopefuls could encounter as they link LGBTQ rights to their parental rights push.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD, said Republicans are using the guise of parental rights “to eliminate people, history books and marginalized communities.”
“This is not about parents. It’s a tactic that DeSantis found really whipped up his base in Florida and so [Republicans] are taking it out for a run to see how it does. Their goal, it seems, is that these politicians are trying to turn parents against each other and make classrooms a battleground so they can further their political ambitions,” Ellis said.
GLAAD is expected to launch a messaging campaign in March that Ellis said will “fill the knowledge gap” that Republicans have “exploited.”
“They tap into the worst anxieties of any parent,” said Ellis, a parent herself.
Trump homes in on culture war battles
Trump, currently the only declared candidate in the GOP presidential field, is one of several 2024 hopefuls who have elevated “parents’ rights” to new prominence as they work to curry favor with the party’s base.
Trump pushed to create a “patriotic education” commission and ordered the federal government to end diversity trainings during his term in office, though much of his focus over the past two years has been on relitigating the 2020 election. Recently, though, he has refocused his attention on the kinds of cultural battles that have enabled some of his likeliest rivals – most notably DeSantis – to gain considerable popularity among Republican voters.
In two straight-to-camera videos this week, Trump suggested that parents should select school principals through a “direct election” process and threatened to end federal funding for schools that teach “a child that they could be trapped in the wrong body” if he were to win another term.
Even those who agreed with Trump’s proposals suggested he was playing catch-up with his fellow culture warriors – especially as he also went on the attack against DeSantis recently, calling the Florida governor “disloyal” and a “globalist RINO” in separate broadsides.
“Obviously, DeSantis taking on Disney has shown a lot of leadership on this issue and frankly, I think it’s why Trump came out with his statements this week because in a lot of ways he sees himself running against DeSantis,” said Bob Vander Plaats, a social conservative activist who runs the Iowa-based Family Leader coalition. Vander Plaats was referring to the Florida governor’s push to strip the Walt Disney Company of its special governing powers after the company criticized his legislative efforts to restrict lessons on LGBTQ rights and gender identity in Florida classrooms.
“Trump is saying, ‘How do I get to the right of DeSantis on this issue?’” Vander Plaats added.
Allies of the former president rebuffed suggestions that he is taking cues from rivals rather than setting the agenda. They pointed to actions Trump took during his term in office to develop a counter-curriculum to the 1619 Project, an initiative launched by The New York Times to teach American students about slavery but which conservatives have decried as “propaganda.” And they cite the many instances in which Trump has condemned the participation of transgender athletes in women’s sports, a topic he first weaved into his stump speech at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference and one that tends to draw some of the biggest applause lines at his campaign rallies.
“This isn’t anything new,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said. “On the school education stuff and critical race theory, he’s been talking about it since 2019 and 2020. And when he talks about gender ideology, he’s been mentioning that in his rallies, too.”
“He’s a candidate now, and he’s focused on forward-looking policy proposals,” Cheung added.
Some conservative activists who are still waiting to see how the 2024 primary field takes shape said Trump appears to be taking steps to ensure he isn’t outflanked by opponents on the issues that currently animate Republican base voters. Terry Schilling, executive director of the socially conservative American Principles Project, said Trump is “trying to play catch-up, but it’s good.”
Referring specifically to Trump’s recently unveiled plan to curtail transgender rights, including ending medical treatments for transgender teens, Schilling suggested the former president was “making sure he’s the most conservative candidate on this issue.”
“I think he’s just trying to ensure he doesn’t lose any ground or get outflanked. … It’s tough because DeSantis and Youngkin have actually been changing the policies on it, which is why I think he is going above and beyond … to kind of get a leg up,” Schilling said.
DeSantis ‘being rewarded already’
A spokesman for DeSantis’ political operation declined to comment, but the Republican governor’s actions suggest he will not cede the issue by any stretch as he marches toward a potential campaign for president. This week, DeSantis released a 2023 budget framework that repeatedly emphasized the importance of “protecting parents’ fundamental rights,” nearly a year after he signed a “Parents Bill of Rights” into law that banned instructions on sexual orientation and gender identity to K-3 grade students.
During the 2022 midterms, DeSantis took the unprecedented step of vetting, endorsing and campaigning for school board candidates, generating a wave of like-minded conservatives to carry out his agenda in districts across the state. Meanwhile, at DeSantis’ urging, a state medical board stacked with his appointees has effectively banned medication and surgeries for minors seeking gender transitions. DeSantis has decried such interventions as “chemical castration.”
In leading these cultural clashes, DeSantis has become a superstar among highly engaged conservatives. He and his wife, Casey, were treated like rock stars at last year’s Tampa summit of Moms for Liberty, a group that mobilizes conservative matriarchs across the country, where he was heralded onstage as an “American hero” and a “shining light” for parents across the country who wish that “Ron would be their governor.” The Florida Republican was reelected to a second term in November by a 19-point margin, a victory he touted at a news conference earlier this week following a fresh round of attacks from Trump.
Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said parental rights weren’t on the forefront of minds during Trump’s first campaign in 2016 or when DeSantis first ran for governor in 2018. But DeSantis was among the first to recognize during the pandemic the parental angst around closed schools, mask mandates and an apprehension to ideological creep into the classroom, she said, and it has him well positioned when parental rights becomes “a litmus test for all candidates in 2024.”
“He’s being rewarded already by having his colleagues and peers watching what he is doing and emulating him across the country,” Justice said. “Ron DeSantis stood up for parents when no one else was. I think he’s a leader that way, and parents across the country have recognized him for that.”
Indeed, DeSantis’ actions have spawned copycat bills in statehouses across the country this year. The National Center for Transgender Equality is tracking 231 bills in state legislatures across the country that seek to curb transgender rights – 86 of which would restrict access to transgender care. In a sign of how swiftly Republicans have pivoted to this issue, as recently as 2019, not a single state legislature in the country was debating cutting off access to gender affirmation treatment or surgeries, said Rodrigo Heng-Lehtinen, executive director of the center.
“If you rewind to 2018, this was not a political matter. There were no bills in statehouses. There were no presidential candidates talking about it. Transgender people were getting health care without a problem, and it was universally recognized as essential care by leading medical institutions,” Heng-Lehtinen said. “It was almost literally overnight we saw these bills pop up.”
“And the places where we’ve seen the most aggressive actions against transgender people,” he added, “are in states where there’s a governor with all points suggesting they are seeking higher office.”
Among those governors is Texas Republican Greg Abbott, whose administration has investigated parents of transgender teens for child abuse. In Iowa, where GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds already signed a bill to give parents and guardians more access to their children’s educational lives, lawmakers are now considering whether to ban instruction of sexual orientation or gender identity through eighth grade. Another potential 2024 Republican candidate, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, authored and signed a bill in 2022 that banned transgender women and girls from female scholastic sports, and in December her administration canceled a transgender advocacy group’s contract with the state’s Department of Health. There is also Youngkin, the term-limited Virginia governor who held a donor summit last fall to explore a possible presidential campaign and who recently rolled out a series of policy changes aimed at transgender students, one of which seeks to require parental sign-off for students who wish to use names or pronouns that diverge from what is listed on their official record.
But not every Republican agrees with the policy fights being waged by the party’s potential presidential contenders as they aim to give parents more control over their childrens’ education.
“When Youngkin and DeSantis do things like this, they aren’t taking into account the discrimination that can result,” said Williams, the former RNC delegate. “If parental rights are constantly about gender identity and critical race theory, it doesn’t seem to be about education. It seems to me it’s about making sure I can shield my kid from anything other than what I want them to know.”