[00:00:15] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.
[00:00:16] Jon M: And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Melissa Deckman, CEO of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy. Dr. Deckman studies the impacts of gender, religion, and age on public opinion and political behavior, and is the author of several books, including School Board Battles: The Christian Right in Local Politics. We’ll be talking with her about the historical and political context of the current “parental rights” campaigns. Welcome, Melissa.
[00:00:55] Melissa D: Thank you for having me. I’m happy to be here today.
[00:00:58] Jon M: Could you summarize the key demands of the parental rights activists?
[00:01:06] Melissa D: Today or historically, would you say?
[00:01:08] Jon M: Well, we’re going to ask you about both, so pick where you’d like to start.
[00:01:13] Melissa D: Sure. Historically, parental rights has always been a term that has held resonance for people on the political right, because there’s a sense that parents should have a large say and large control in the curriculum and the activities that are happening in public schools. I don’t want to say that this also isn’t a belief held by parents who are not part of the right. Most Americans who are parents and who have children in their schools would say yes, they want to be part of their kids’ schools, and they would like to be part of that. But the parental rights issue, as defined by the political right, historically, and in today’s times is more about the idea that the curriculum of public schools is often too liberal or progressive on the political left, that it has the ability potentially to indoctrinate students into beliefs and attitudes that they themselves don’t hold, so it holds a lot of appeal for parents who might otherwise not necessarily be politically active.
Part of my work also looks at the role of conservative women involved in politics historically. And so politics for much of our history was really a gendered affair in the sense that men were far more active, and obviously women couldn’t vote right until the beginning of the last century. But the one area historically where it was viewed as permissible for women to get involved was really when it came to the education and upbringing of their kids. And so parental rights was a way for conservative women to get involved in education and politics as well. But it has a particular meaning for conservatives that it doesn’t have for liberals.
[00:02:46] Jon M: And are there specific things that they’re asking for around the country? What are some of the things that PRRI has looked at in terms of what some of the demands are? And also perhaps, how these fit with how parents in general or the population in general think about them.
[00:03:06] Melissa D: Well, if we look at what’s happening right now in terms of parental rights and public education, it’s hard not to turn on the news and see all these news stories of angry parents showing up at school board meetings, really unhappy over the direction of the curriculum of some of the schools. So, for example, there’s a mentality among people on the right that our public schools have become too “woke.” And what they mean by that, these conservative activists, is that there’s too much emphasis on LGBTQ issues, on gender identity and sexual education in public schools. Or there’s a concern that there’s too much conversation about critical race theory, which actually doesn’t really exist in any public school district on the country.
But nonetheless, there is this idea that any sort of conversation about the role of our history and the role of racism and structural racism in our history is very divisive and it makes white students feel guilty and those sorts of things. And so wokeness is kind of also brought into this idea of parental rights more generally because many conservative activists want to have a larger hand than what’s being offered in the classroom. I would also say this, and why, for example, It’s resonating so much currently in our current politics. So if we look at where we’ve been the last couple years as a nation, we’ve really just emerged from this horrific pandemic. And many of us were, of course, in our homes for a better part of a year. And, if you have kids in public school, they were often at home learning remotely. And a lot of parents were frustrated with the lack of progress in getting kids back to school or, alternatively, requirements that they wear a mask or get vaccinated. So a lot of parents, I think, have been unhappy about the state of public schools.
If you look at something like the Virginia gubernatorial election that took place in 2021, as we’ were emerging from the pandemic in some ways. Part of Glenn Youngkin’s, appeal, or his message really boiled down to parental rights in schools, really targeting a message to frustrated parents, and he won that election. He also had sort of a weak opponent, I would argue, and it was close, but nonetheless, the narrative for many people on the political right is that this is a winning issue, that parents want more say in the direction of their schools. Many conservative parents think they’re going too far to the political left, and they’re unhappy about that. And so this is viewed as a winning issue. And so that, of course, led people like Governor Ron DeSantis, for example, in Florida, to pass a bill that some people call the “don’t say gay” bill, which is essentially trying to forbid instruction of gender identity or sexual orientation in public schools. And he, of course, was soundly reelected in his last election campaign last fall. Many conservatives looked at that as something that has wider support among the American public, when in actuality…
PRRI has done some polling recently. Last year we asked Americans whether they would favor or oppose banning books that discuss LGBT topics, just to get back to the issue of “don’t say gay,” and we found in March of last year, 2022, only about 32% of Americans either favored or strongly favored banning those sorts of books. And so those kinds of initiatives, to ban books, is not necessarily widely supported among the American public. And on issues concerning racism in schools or looking at content for schools, the vast majority of Americans say that we should teach both the good and the bad when it comes to our history. And, in fact, we asked specifically in that same survey from last year. March, 2022, 59% of of Americans strongly oppose banning books that depict slavery, for example, and an additional 30% oppose it. So really, I mean, less than one in 10 Americans say we shouldn’t even bring up concepts like slavery. Most Americans really realize that history, for example, is a balance. We need to be talking about these sorts of topics, but nonetheless, a lot of activists, in the name of parental rights, are trying to remove those conversations in schools today.
[00:07:00] Amy H-L: When there were parental rights campaigns in the past, were they as polarized as they seem to be today, even though your polling shows that in general the population, or even parents, are not as polarized, but the activists clearly are?
[00:07:20] Melissa D: So to say that religion in politics, in schools, is a new thing is absolutely not true. I mean, if you go back to in our history, there were, of course, the famous Bible wars that took place in the early to mid 19th century. And this was over the role of which Bible children should be reading in public schools. And it was really a reaction to the growth of the number of Catholics that came to this country, Irish and Italian immigrants. Those parents did not want their children reading the King James Bible.. And so it really led to these protracted battles and in fact some riots, and deadly riots, in places like Philadelphia. So when there are pitched battles over religious content in schools, and when you have, for example, the religious rights of minorities being pitted against the religious rights of the majority, you end up with a lot of political drama. I think, for example, cutting to the 20th century, if you look at the famous court decisions in the 20th century that essentially removed the teaching bible instruction and also removed school prayer. Those cases were bought about by parents who were either Jewish or who were non-religious. And so whenever you have the rights of religious minorities coming into play with the rights of say, the majority, you have those kinds of political skirmishes. But I don’t think that in the 20th century it was necessarily as partisan and as polarized as it is today. It may be something that’s different.
I would also add too, where you’ve had these sort of political skirmishes in public schools is when there’s been the introduction of ideas that challenge the beliefs and the theology of the religious majority. That, of course, we saw with evolution in the 1920s. Anti-communism had some religious themes as well in the 1950s, and then of course you had the introduction of sex education in the 1960s and seventies, and multiculturalism in general in the 1970s and eighties. Anytime you have a curriculum, again, that challenges the narrative and touches on themes that go against the religious views of parents, you’re going to have conflict. But again, to your point, Amy, I don’t necessarily think it was as partisan as it is now, but we’ve just simply become a far more partisan country that’s polarized by our party politics today.
[00:09:32] Jon M: Does your data show any indication of whether these campaigns around parental rights are related to efforts to weaken funding for public schools or in some way to discredit public schools?
[00:09:47] Melissa D: Yeah, so we don’t really have any questions on our surveys. You know, what we tend to do here at PRRI is ask the American public how they feel about these topics to get a good lay of the land of how religion is affecting these viewpoints. And so we don’t have necessarily a lot of questions on that particular topic. I will say, however, though, that part of the political right, and these are not just religious aspects of the religious right, but part of the more libertarian aspects of the political right as well, have long sought the goal of having more funding for charter schools, the creation of more charter schools or the funding of the public for vouchers that can be used for private schools. And just this week, in fact, in North Dakota, the state legislature is poised to essentially allow parents who send their kids to religious school to use public funds. And so there’s a larger long-term effort of many activists on the right to, in fact, have vouchers for private schools, including religious schools. I’m not surprised that this campaign is happening at the same time as you have some activists trying to highlight what they view as problems with the public schools. There is something that’s related there. Definitely.
[00:11:00] Amy H-L: What do your studies show about parents’ opinions on these campaigns? Even if they at least outwardly don’t agree with them, are they glad that they’re happening?
[00:11:14] Melissa D: The popularity of these attempts, groups like Moms for Liberty, who are organizing conservative parents at the grassroots level to go into the schools, to learn more about the curriculum, and to advocate against more progressive curriculum, depends on the partisanship and the religious makeup of the parents themselves. To give you one more recent example, if you look at the extent to which Americans think that public school teachers and librarians are providing appropriate curriculum or trying to indoctrinate students that wrongly portray America as a racist country. This was a question that we asked last fall as part of our American value survey. Fully two-thirds, 66% of Americans, believe that public school teachers and librarians actually are providing appropriate books and curriculum, whereas only 29% believe that they’re indoctrinating students. However, if you break that down, a majority of Republicans 54% compared to only 7% of Democrats actually believe that teachers and librarians are indoctrinating children. And so I think the popularity of the policies really depend on the partisanship and the religious makeup. And I should also add, for example, on that particular data point, more than half of white Evangelical Protestants also agree that there’s indoctrination going on.
One of the things that we look at here at PRRI often is media consumption. If you’re watching Fox News a lot, if that’s your main trusted news source, Fox News tends to focus a lot of their content on what they consider the “wokeness” of public schools. And so that becomes a bigger priority for those parents. But again, it’s not necessarily the priority of most parents in the country.
[00:12:49] Amy H-L: Fox News isn’t necessarily the cause of it. Christian conservatives are going to tend to watch Fox News. Still, a third of parents seems like a substantial number that object to what’s being taught in the schools. Can you explain that?
[00:13:09] Melissa D: Well, part of it is that, you know, it’s not just watching Fox News. You’re right about that. But if you are a person who is, I think, religiously conservative and you follow different interest groups, I can’t really over emphasize the extent to which social media is important and part of this conversation. And this is also something that sets apart earlier iterations of conservative Christian activism in schools. For example, I wrote a book about the involvement of the Christian right in school board elections in the 1990s, and we really didn’t have social media at that point in time. And what social media allows activists to do is to really take an issue and maybe misrepresent it or to take one example that might be perceived as egregious and sort of to essentially imply that this is happening in every school district in the country, when in fact it’s probably not likely or even providing and spreading misinformation.
Getting back to this idea of critical race theory, for example, critical race theory is a graduate level theory that educators often use to consider systemic racism in different aspects of society. There’s no evidence that critical race theory is being taught in public schools writ large. But yet if you watch, you know, the videos put out by people like Moms for Liberty or other organizations that are part of the, the political, right, there is sort of this emphasis that this is happening and it’s prevailing in all school districts around the country.
[00:14:30] Jon M: You mentioned the social media. Is that something that is being used by people who are opposed to these campaigns as well as by groups like Moms for Liberty?
Think that’s a good point. Social media can work on both sides of the political aisle, right. A lot of activists on the political left also use social media to galvanize, and there’s been examples of parent groups who are banding together to try to stop book bans from happening in their communities and to advocate for librarians and for teachers. It’s also a tool that’s being used by the political left as well. You noted earlier in your introduction that I study the impact of generations.
[00:15:09] Melissa D: And I will tell you that Generation Z exclusively get their news information from, from social media sources. And it’s really been used by those individuals also to protest, to raise their voices about their unhappiness with the direction of curriculum that’s happening from their perspective. Of course, Gen Zers and teenagers can’t vote yet. And sometimes it’s falling on deaf ears in certain school districts around the country. But nonetheless, I do think it’s an important tool for activism as well on the political left.
[00:15:38] Amy H-L: How does race or even racism factor into the parental rights campaigns?
[00:15:43] Melissa D: Yeah, so I’m gonna go back into a little bit of the history of the rise of the Christian right and American politics really. Most people think that the Christian right came about in the late 1970s, in part as a reaction against Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Jimmy Carter was notable because he was really our first self-affirming, born again Christian. He wasn’t evangelical. By all accounts he was quite devout in his beliefs, but a lot of conservative Christians were disappointed in Jimmy Carter’s presidency because they didn’t realize how politically liberal he was. And so part of his campaign when he was running in 1976, he promised, for example, to teachers unions, who were a big constituency of his election campaign, that there should be a national, for example, Department of Education.
But there was also another reason that the Christian right came into existence. It wasn’t necessarily because of opposition to abortion. That’s part of the story. That’s often what people historically think of when they think about the Christian Right and Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority and those groups. But really a lot of conservative Christian activists began to mobilize because there was talk among the IRS under Carter’s administration that they were going to remove the tax exempt status of Christian fundamentalist academies, primarily located in the South. Those academies began to appear in response to, of course, the Brown versus Board of Education decision in 1954. It took many years to fully integrate public schools and desegregate public schools, but yet for some conservative white parents, they decided, in fact, to create their own sorts of, of Christian academies that had a history of not allowing students of color admission. And so that clearly was a violation of the 14th Amendment. And so the Carter administration was looking into, in fact, revoking that status. And that’s really what galvanized, initially, a lot of people on the Christian right. And so, you know, there’s always been this history of race, religion when it comes to these schools. So we jump to Reagan being elected in 1980. The immediate threat of IRS revoking tax status for those schools gets removed. And a lot of people felt that, essentially, with Ronald Reagan in the presidency, he was recognizing the role of evangelicals and supporting them, that sort of thing. But after about eight years, Reagan’s priorities were really about tax cuts, building a bigger defense, and paying a lot of lip surface to evangelicals. And so in 1988, you have the Republican primary. I promise this is linked to schools. I do. So the Republican primary involves, of course, George Herbert Walker Bush, Vice President, and it involves televangelist Pat Robertson, who was one of the very disgruntled people with Reagan’s presidency. He felt that the Republican party relied on the votes of conservative Christians, but didn’t implement those policies. And so he challenged Bush in that primary. He of course, lost, but what he did in the late eighties and during this campaign is he basically set in motion the creation of what became the Christian Coalition and what Pat Robertson wanted to do as head of the Christian Coalition, he hired this wonderkind, Ralph Reed, who’s still involved with the Christian right today, to try to refocus the efforts of the Christian right in the grassroots. And so when it comes to the grassroots, getting more conservative Christians involved in GOP precinct politics, but also at school boards. Because in the 1990s, again, we’re still dealing with issues like sex education in public schools and the standards of history curriculum in public schools, and again, the fear of liberal indoctrination of, of students in public schools. So those issues have been around for a long time. Those arguments have been around for a long time.
Looking at the role of race. So race was a part of that initial process, but going back to today, how it kind of plays a role. So I don’t think you’ll necessarily find a lot of conservative parent activists talking about religion and race per se, when they push back against CRT. But I do think that the problem for conservative activists, when it comes to something like critical race theory, is that it really pushes against this more inclusive history of the United States in the sense that those parents want to downplay the role of race and they want to sort of safeguard ideas about what it means to be America, what it means to be exceptional. And so in that respect, race plays a role in that. We’ve done a lot of extensive research, for example, at PRRI, looking at structural racism attitudes. We’ve come up with something called the structural racism index, and we find that, for example, conservative Christians are far more likely to be opposed to those indices of structural racism, the idea that if only African Americans worked harder, they’d get ahead in life or that there’s no widespread discrimination against African Americans, and even the idea that there’s in fact more discrimination against white Americans than Black Americans in this country, and conservative, religious white Americans believe that more than other groups do.
But in terms of our schools, I don’t necessarily see an effort to try to impose a Christian nationalist sort of theology maybe in very conservative school districts, but I do think that the racial ideology is part of that mix as well when it comes to religion.
[00:21:00] Amy H-L: Are these conservatives conservative white parents okay with their kids going to school with Black children. And how about children of other religions?
[00:21:12] Melissa D: So one of the things that I found in my original book on school board battles is I looked at the extent to which conservative Christians were running in elections, and I found that in fact, you know, they weren’t disproportionately winning elections. They tended to be elected in conservative districts, that sort of thing. But what I found is that among those that were ultimately elected to the school board, those who were most theologically driven and really would’ve liked to restore prayer in public schools, for example.
Constitutionally speaking, there were limits to what they could do. And so by the end of, the 1990s, going into the early two thousands, a lot of the most conservative parents theologically had moved to homeschooling or moved their kids to private religious schools. And so there’s not necessarily a problem with their students attending schools of different races or religious beliefs per se. Although I do think that many conservative Christians would say that they’d rather be in a country, we found this in our data, that’s primarily made up of fellow Christians. What troubles many conservative Christian parents is schools that teach acceptance of LGBTQ rights, for example, that that’s very much not a part of what their theological beliefs really entail. I don’t think it’s about students who look different from a racial or ethnic perspective as much as it is about their kids being exposed to the curriculum that they’re not happy about,
[00:22:39] Amy H-L: Like reality?
[00:22:42] Melissa D: Well, people who oppose that would say, yeah, this is kind of the reality in which we live. And it’s also interesting that if we look at Generation Z, which is the current generation, those Americans born after 1996, that are currently populating middle and high schools, they’re the most ethnically and religiously diverse. And so those sorts of demographic changes, and the fact that younger Americans are less religious, is really troubling to many conservative Christian parents. And so that’s why you see these debates happening that are so high tempered in public schools because the reality is that we have a multiracial and diverse country, and that can be in some ways be interpreted as challenging to the worldview that many conservative Christians and their parents have.
[00:23:31] Jon M: I wanted to follow up on the question about school boards. It sounds as though the Republicans, or the people who are pushing for parental rights, would probably say that Youngkin’s victory in Virginia and DeSantis’ apparently fairly large victory in Florida indicate that this is a winning issue and it’s something that parents support, regardless of whatever the other data show. But how did the candidates who are pushing this seem to do, for example, in 2022? Is there a clear pattern of this being a winning issue or not?
[00:24:13] Melissa D: I guess what I would point to, in terms of these curricular initiatives happening across the country, you know, there’s a lot of parents who really just don’t support the idea of not talking about homosexuality or gender identity in schools. Because the reality is that one of four Gen Zers identify as part of the LGBTQ community. And a lot of parents have kids who have mental health struggles, especially, who are part of that community. And so parental rights, from their point of view. would and probably should involve more honest conversations and acceptance and inclusivity when it comes to, to their kids. So I don’t necessarily think that the policies endorsed by Ron DeSantis, even though ,of course, he was reelected very handily last year. But Is that something that can transport to other states, especially blue states? Probably not at all. Right. And I think from a national platform, you know, I don’t think that that’s gonna be successful. Will it be successful in some school districts? Yes, because there are some places that are more conservative. But I don’t necessarily see it as a winning issue across the country. Our polling data really doesn’t show that either.
[00:25:22] Amy H-L: Is there anything we didn’t ask you but should have?
[00:25:26] Melissa D: I do think that these issues aren’t going away anytime soon, frankly, because we have a younger generation that’s more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender identity that are less religious. And so you’re going to see more parents on both sides of the aisle getting involved in politics. At the end of the day, having a system where people can actually run for election, amass their supporters, you know, that’s really what democracy is all about. So we’ll have to see how these things actually shape up in the long term, but it’s something to keep an eye on as we move into the future.
[00:25:56] Jon M: Definitely. Is there anything you’d like to mention about PRRI’S work or how people can access your work?
[00:26:04] Melissa D: I would love to. So if you go to our website, prri.org, you can actually, at the bottom of the, the website, sign up for newsletters. So we have, for example, three times a week we produce a newsletter called The Morning Buzz, where we look at trends and culture and politics and we sort of put our own spin on what our data are saying about those trends. We don’t just look at public education. I mean, we tend to look at things like Americans’ attitudes about LGBTQ’s rights or about the state of democracy and occasionally we have things like favorability numbers for candidates who are running, for political office. So it’s a sort of a nice mix of different issues that talk about politics, but also about religious change in the country. So please sign up. You can also follow us on Instagram and Twitter @prripoll. And so we try to think about all of the political and cultural events that are occurring right here in the United States, and what does our data speak to in terms of those events. And so that’s really what we’re trying to do. Again, we’re nonpartisan, we’re not for profit.. We don’t, you know, take sides on these issues. But it’s more about trying to bring truth to discourse to kind of take a look at what’s happening when it comes to Americans’ opinion on these issues as well.
And if you’re a researcher, our data are publicly available. And so if you want to look at and play around with the data that we produce, we have a data vault. And so researchers can actually download the data themselves and take a look at the, take a look at it. So I’d always encourage if you have, especially educators in your audience, people who are in grad school education, professors, there is good high quality data for them to analyze themselves. And so take a look under our data, prri.org.
[00:27:43] Jon M: Thank you, Dr. Melissa Deckman of PRRI.
[00:27:46] Amy H-L: And thank you, listeners. Check out our new video series, “What Would YOU Do?,” a collaboration with Dr. Meira Levinson of the Harvard Grad School of Education and EdEthics. Go to our website, ethicalschools.org, and click Video. In the first case study, a teacher using action civics faces pushback from a parent. The goal of this series is not to provide right answers, but to illustrate a variety of ethical viewpoints.
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