Barth Keck

As we approach the Connecticut primaries on Aug. 9, the political rhetoric is heating up. In addition to the abundant TV ads, I’ve noticed some increasingly popular language that has been thrown around by many Republican candidates discussing education: parents’ rights, parental choice, or some variation thereof.

“In order to ensure our children’s future, Connecticut’s school districts should remain local and we should give parents more choice as to where and how their children are educated,” states the website of GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski.

To Stefanowski, “parental choice” apparently means “school choice.” How he’d advance the concept as governor is a mystery – vouchers, magnet schools, charters? – since he offers no specifics on his website.

Themis Klarides, meanwhile, has titled one section of her website “Parental Rights.” The GOP-endorsed candidate hoping to unseat Richard Blumenthal in the U.S. Senate describes the concept this way: “Congress has a responsibility to protect local control and honor the rights of parents. Parents deserve options – the money should follow the child.”

Similar to Stefanowski, Klarides frames “parental rights” under the school-choice banner with vague wording that sounds a lot like school vouchers. Again, however, she stops short of providing any details.

Other GOP candidates provide alternate definitions of “parents’ rights” and “parental choice.” Leora Levy and Peter Lumaj, Klarides’ challengers in the primary, are two such candidates.

“Leora will always defend Parental Rights and Freedom of Choice for wearing masks and vaccinations,” according to Levy’s website. “Leora is cemented in her belief that the parent knows what is best for their child, not the government.”

Lemaj’s website, meanwhile, states, “Over the last couple years, we have seen our classrooms and curriculums become politicized in a way we’ve never witnessed before. Critical Race Theory has no place in any classroom … Vilifying parents or trying to block them from having a say in what their children are being taught will further polarize this critical issue that our children desperately need us as a nation to get right.”

Masks. Vaccines. School Choice. Critical Race Theory. Curriculum. “Parental rights,” apparently, is in the eye of the beholder. Like any political catchphrase, it’s very appealing to the ear but glaringly imprecise – just the way political operatives like Christopher Rufo like it.

You remember Rufo. He was the man who initiated the national crusade against Critical Race Theory in order to “turn it toxic and put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.” It was Step One in a wide-ranging plan to turn public opinion against public schools.

“The secret to good activism is not mass, but leverage,” explained Rufo in an interview in the National Catholic Register. “The narratives about CRT sparked an immense public response and politicians, who are always looking at the intensity of voter sentiment, started to deliver laws that protected their constituents and protected families from indoctrination. The GOP then adopted a smart frame – ‘parental rights,’ ‘the parents’ party’ – that created a set of policies and connotations that is very appealing to families.”

And away we go! Now it seems like every GOP candidate across the country has jumped on the “parental rights” bandwagon. Clearly, not even Connecticut, whose public schools are fiercely local, is immune to the allure of this coded language, as national groups like Parent’s Choice, No Left Turn in Education, and Parents Against Stupid Stuff – among others – have sent representatives to school board meetings and have donated money to state politicians.

Several local elections last November, in fact, featured school board candidates running on Rufo’s ready-made anti-CRT platform without providing any tangible evidence of how it’s taught in schools, let alone defining CRT itself. While all of these candidates were defeated last year, the issue is not going away – thanks in large part to the way GOP candidates from Connecticut have adopted “parental rights” as coded campaign rhetoric.

The irony of all this focus on the supposed loss of parents’ rights in connection with their children’s education is that the majority of parents nationwide still support their local public schools.

“By wide margins – and regardless of their political affiliation – parents express satisfaction with their children’s schools and what is being taught in them,” according to an NPR/Ipsos poll. “In the poll, 76% of respondents agree that ‘my child’s school does a good job keeping me informed about the curriculum, including potentially controversial topics’.”

So, when Connecticut citizens vote in the upcoming primaries and general election, they should ask GOP candidates, “Can you show us, specifically, what is wrong with Connecticut schools and how, specifically, would you fix them?”

Good luck getting an answer beyond some bromide about “parents’ rights” or “parental choice.”

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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