The state of the latest iteration of the parental rights movement, which came to prominence during the pandemic in 2021, says a lot about the advantages and disadvantages of a decentralized movement. Multiple organizations, including FreedomWorks through its BEST program, rushed to meet the demand for expertise, resources, and support to nurture this developing movement that was, and is, fighting for real change in our school system at the national, state, and local levels.
The changes we seek in this movement are simple – a greater respect for parents and their rights, defined by court precedent, to monitor and direct the upbringing of their children, and to expand opportunities for children to attend the schools of their and their parent’s choice. These goals sit comfortably within the American spirit and small-L libertarianism, as well as appealing to parents of different political persuasions. Why, then, has the track record of success been such a mixed bag?
As school board elections come and go, we see an array of potential takeaways. In some areas, conservative candidates are kept at bay by incumbent school board members while in other areas—the best example being Arizona in 2022— conservatives see great success. FreedomWorks School Board Candidate Academy has been able to analyze what is working and what is not. FreedomWorks-trained candidates in the suburban area around Phoenix, Arizona, for example, saw great success in winning seats on local school boards. What were the differences?
Successful candidates had substantive and well-structured websites and consistent usage of social media, focused on local issues and didn’t try to nationalize their races, effectively presented themselves as fiscally-responsible and dedicated to transparency, put time into their fundraising efforts, and recruited volunteers or worked with local pro-parent groups. Of course, not everyone who fell short in their goal missed every one of these parameters, but they were indicators of success that can and should be learned from.
Although there has been tremendous success on the school choice front in recent years in states like Arizona, Florida, West Virginia, and Iowa, other conservative states like Texas and those in the deep south generally lag behind.
There are lessons to be learned in how the movement, as a whole, has approached the issue of education freedom (school choice), as well. Earlier this year, Virginia’s Governor Glenn Youngkin and his administration pushed for a doomed Education Freedom bill. This legislation, with dubious chances of ever passing the Democrat-controlled State Senate, was actually left in committee by the Republican majority in the House of Delegates. We need to recognize that anti-school choice Rs, or school choice-tepid Rs, exist—both on the right flank and the centrist wings of the Republican party.
What is the lesson here? Active grassroots involvement and non-profit organizational support from the beginning of a bill’s consideration radically increases its chances of passing. Additionally, strong Republican majorities in state legislatures seem to give the buffer needed for school choice legislation to overcome intra-party disagreements.
The states where there has been major movement on the issue of school choice are predominantly republican-controlled states, and Education Savings Accounts or tax credit-related bills are passed under Republican majorities. However, school choice is beginning to gain popularity in blue states. If school choice is so broadly popular, we have missed an opportunity to build a bipartisan majority on this issue.
If over the course of legislation markups and negotiations elements are added that Republicans can and should not vote for, that would be another situation. Instead, lawmakers often allow this issue to become a political wedge, cut out input from the other side, and are left in the unenviable position of trying to cobble together party-line majorities where the risk of defection can not be mitigated. We should be focused on getting these bills passed, not scoring political points. What a missed opportunity!
If we want to win, we need to stop being reactive, and instead be proactive. We can’t become a movement of just library book hawks and angry parents in school board meetings. We can no longer assume it is enough to throw a school choice bill in the legislature and “see what happens.” We must stop reacting to individual instances of school district misbehavior, and we need to keep pushing for curriculum reform, getting school board members elected, submitting public record requests, and forcing school districts to be transparent—but we need to do that with a plan of action, intention, and tact.
Laura Zorc is the Director of Education Reform at FreedomWorks, and Zach Laba is the Program Manager for Building Education for Students Together.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.