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Glenn Youngkin Believes in “Parents’ Rights”—But Only for the “Right” Kinds of Parents

The Virginia governor has some interesting ideas about who gets rights and who doesn’t when it comes to parents, kids, and schools.
October 19, 2022
Glenn Youngkin Believes in “Parents’ Rights”—But Only for the “Right” Kinds of Parents
(Composite / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Last month Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed new model education policies regarding transgender students. The “guiding principle” of his proposal is that “Parents have the right to make decisions with respect to their children,” and that “Schools shall respect parents’ values and beliefs.”

Follow along with what Youngkin means by respecting parents’ decisions:

Youngkin aims to require transgender students to participate in sports teams and use restrooms according to what the schools say they should. And Youngkin also seeks to prevent teachers and administrators from referring to transgender students by their preferred names and pronouns. Which I guess means that neither the students, nor the parents, nor the teachers in the schools get to make decisions about important educational matters such as . . . nicknames.

So if the trans kid—or any kid—and the kid’s parents and the kid’s teacher all want to call the kid Sonny, or Red, or Lefty—well, they’re out of luck. Governor Youngkin has reserved that decision, value, and belief for himself.

Out of “respect.” For parents. Or something.

Youngkin makes some other exceptions on how much respect he’s willing to give the rights of parents. For instance, a school’s official record of a student’s sex and name cannot be changed “even upon written instruction of a parent” without matching legal documentation such as a birth certificate, passport, or driver’s license.

Also, while parents can request that their children be referred to by different pronouns or a different name, teachers can ignore parents’ wishes if cooperating with them “would violate [the teacher’s] constitutionally protected rights.”

You would be forgiven for thinking that when Youngkin talks about parents’ rights, he only means the rights of certain, preferred groups of parents.

Because if you belong to a class of parent which Youngkin does not prefer, then the governor will make decisions for you. And for your kid. And for the school.

Youngkin’s proposal is just the latest example of a Republican culture war that preaches “parents’ rights” for some, but not for all.

From Alabama to Oklahoma to Tennessee, Republican-controlled states are enacting laws that restrict transgender students from using bathrooms which align with their gender identity. In even more states, trans students are banned from playing on sports teams that match their identity. It doesn’t matter what a trans student’s parents want. (It doesn’t even matter whether or not there are any trans athletes trying to join school sports teams.)

Even more extreme are efforts to ban or criminalize gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth. In such instances, parents can’t seek certain types of medical care for their transgender children because the state has already decided for them.

The argument against gender-affirming care is that it is harmful to a child, akin to child abuse, and children must be protected from themselves and their parents who want them to receive it. And just for the sake of argument, let’s grant that this is an emerging field, that we don’t know all of the best-practices yet, and that surely there are some sensible regulations for treatment that even most trans activists would agree are prudent.

What’s odd is that if you want to send your gay or trans children to “conversion therapy”—which there is evidence causes psychological trauma and other adverse effects—well, in 21 states that’s your right as a parent.

You may be shocked to learn that four states which have passed ban on gender-affirming care—Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, and Tennessee—also have legal regimes which protect conversion therapy.

There’s a reason why “parents’ rights” was a campaign-winning issue for Youngkin.

Parents want to know what their children are being taught and they don’t want to co-parent with the government. Especially toward the end of the pandemic, parents across the political spectrum were eager to have their children back in school and were sick of wearing masks.

Historically, Republicans have mostly been correct on the merits when it comes to parental involvement in education. The basic unit of American society is the family, not the public school. Parents should be the decision-makers for their children and they should be able to convey their own values and beliefs to their children without being undermined by school bureaucracies. It’s not just a moral issue, either. When parents are more involved in their children’s education, children are more likely to succeed academically.

But we need a real commitment to the rights of all parents. Not a ginned up culture war by on-the-make politicians looking to score points by signaling which kinds of parents (and kids) they like, and which kinds they don’t.

Ansley Skipper

Ansley Skipper is a Jefferson Scholar studying American government at the University of Virginia.