For Republicans, “Parent Choice” is About Power, not Freedom

Education Policy Brief #83 | By: Rudolph Lurz | May 23, 2023
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (left) debates Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce on September 28, 2021, in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo taken from:


During a debate in the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial campaign, Terry McAuliffe made a serious blunder. He stated, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

His opponent, Glenn Youngkin, seized on that mistake. Youngkin made “parent choice” in education the centerpiece of his campaign, especially concepts such as CRT (Critical Race Theory) and LGBTQ+ issues. Youngkin framed McAuliffe’s stance as anti-parent and elitist, and rode that messaging all the way to a surprise victory in a state that has trended blue in recent years.

The exact target of parent anger in districts nationwide is difficult to pinpoint, but can best be explained with the near-ubiquitous term of “anti-woke”. Parents and policy makers who prescribe to this philosophy claim that public school districts are indoctrinating students with so-called “woke” ideology. This includes things like the acceptance of non-binary and transgender students, health classes which include discussion of LGBTQ+ issues, and the role of racism in American history.

“Parent Choice” has become the mantra of those who stand in opposition to curriculum issues such as these. School board meetings have become raucous and even violent. School board members have received violent and obscene threats, drawing the attention of the Attorney General and Department of Justice. Attendees at these meetings sometimes do not even have children in the districts involved. Attempts to bar non-district attendees from these meetings have been denigrated as authoritarianism. The DOJ’s efforts to protect school board members have been framed as portraying parents as terrorists.  Ted Cruz, in a letter co-signed by other Senate Republicans, stated, “Parents and other citizens who get impassioned at school-board meetings are not domestic terrorists. You may believe that, but too many people involved in this issue seem to think harsh words can be criminalized. Getting the FBI’s Counterterrorism Division involved in the matter only makes this worse—dramatically worse.”

To Republicans like Senator Cruz, whether or not the protestors have children in the school district is not relevant. Advocacy coalitions such as Moms for Liberty get the word out, and meetings that were once sparsely attended have become loud battlefields of partisan vitriol.



As I noted in a previous brief, the current criticism of public education is not a traditional GOP attack angle. The standard refrain was that public districts were failing, and parents should receive a voucher to use the per pupil funding of their child toward the tuition of the private school of their choice. Vouchers are a popular form of school choice, which advocates for the idea that the money should follow the student. “Butts in seats” is shorthand for a common funding formula used by school districts. A district map determines which areas are zoned for elementary, middle, and high schools. Students attend their districted school, and the number of students who are counted as “present” in the first few weeks of the year determines the funding levels for the next academic year. The per pupil figure in that formula is determined by many factors, including property tax revenues and state funding. 

Every district is different. School choice advocates vary from those who would like to take their kid’s entire per pupil amount and get a voucher from a Catholic school (which raises church/state concerns), to those who want the option to attend a different public school in the same district. That argument is more logically sound, as funds allocated for that student remain in the district instead of leaving for private schools. However, it still is problematic. If one district school is performing poorly, how many families are allowed to leave for greener pastures? Would the district then be obligated to provide transportation to schools on the other side of the county? 

These are questions I am used to discussing as an education policy analyst. This latest trend under the guise of “parent choice” is both bizarre and alarming. Advocacy groups like Moms for Liberty are not seeking opt-out clauses or pushing for vouchers. They want to control the education options for the entire district. Vicki Baggett, an English teacher in Florida, has personally filed over 150 forms seeking the removal of books from district libraries across the state. 

“Parent Choice” is a solid rallying cry for firing up suburban moms to vote Republican. It uses warm terminology with the positive connotation of having a voice in the education of their children. What parent wouldn’t want that?

The issue with this modern movement is that it’s anything but warm and fuzzy parents cheering for their own kids. It is centered on activist partisans who seek power at the state and federal levels. If groups are advocating for the removal of entire sections of books from school libraries and chilling any classroom discussions on topics they do not like, that is not “parent choice”.

That is dominion. 

Parents should absolutely have a voice in their kids’ education. They have public forums at school board meetings to make their voices heard. There are appropriate avenues available for parent input and dissent.

Parent voices become alarming when they demand dominance over the education options for every student in the district. Those voices become frightening when they show up at districts where their kids don’t live and demand dominance there, too. Those voices require DOJ intervention when they begin threatening school board members with violence if they don’t get their way. 

For the civic health of this nation, and the decentralized local control that traditional Republicans used to advocate for, it’s vital that school board meetings become boring again. 

If you are threatening other parents and educators and screaming at the top of your lungs in a county 200 miles away, you’re doing it wrong.


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