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The Hill that Public Education Dies on: Transgender Policies’ Utter Contempt for Parents

Fordham Institute

August 24, 2023

An unmistakable fault line is emerging between much of public education and many of those it serves, particularly parents, on transgender issues. Put bluntly, a strong majority of Americans—57 percent in a recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation—simply don’t buy the idea that a person can be a gender other than the one “assigned at birth.” The fissures grow even wider on related issues that schools must contend with. Sixty-nine percent oppose transgender females competing against biological females in youth sports. And overwhelming majorities, more than three-fourths of those polled, believe it’s “inappropriate for teachers to discuss trans identity in elementary schools.” Other polls have found strong majorities of parents think transgender students should use bathrooms and locker rooms to match their sex rather than their chosen gender identity.

Big swaths of public education are moving aggressively against these sentiments. The most egregious examples are policies that say school district personnel can or should keep a student’s transgender status hidden from parents. The advocacy group Parents Defending Education counts over 1,000 school districts, which collectively educate more than 10 million children, that encourage teachers and staff to allow students to “socially transition”—change their name, pronouns, or gender expression—without parental consent or notification.

It is not possible to overstate the level of distrust, even contempt, reflected in the practice of excluding parents from discussions about their child’s gender preference, even deceiving them if students claim their parents are unsupportive. Moreover, such policies, typically justified as protecting students from harm, are wholly unnecessary. Teachers are “mandated reporters” in every U.S. state. If they have reason to believe children are unsafe at home, they are required by law to alert local child protective services. In no other conceivable instances is there any justification for excluding parents from profoundly life-altering decisions about their own children. If schools insist on inserting themselves between parents and their children, they do so not because they are compelled to, but because they choose to. The Supreme Court has recognized for over a century, going back to Pierce v. Society of Sisters, that “the child is not the mere creature of the state.” Keeping a child’s gender switch a secret from parents as a “best practice” is the state saying, in effect, “Oh, yes he (or she) is.”

It is not news that Americans’ trust in major institutions has been in freefall for some time. In the case of public education, it’s a two-way street. A December 2021 poll conducted for EdChoice showed that only about a third of teachers (36 percent) say they trust parents, a level below their confidence in their principals, union leaders, and the U.S. Department of Education. This level of institutional disregard creates ripe conditions for public school personnel to assume that their judgment is superior to a child’s parents. And that’s exactly what appears to be happening. Coming at a time when Americans have more opportunities to educate their children outside of traditional public schools and a growing inclination to do so, the consequences of aggressive anti-parent policies could easily become public schools’ undoing. The increased tempo of debates over masking during the pandemic and current issues with ideologically-tinged curricula and activism have already alienated a significant number of parents. Enshrining into policy and practice ideological notions about student gender to which a majority of Americans do not subscribe could easily be fatal to support for public education at large.

It will be argued that these policies are rarely enacted, but that’s beside the point. A government-run institution granting itself permission to withhold life-changing information from parents about their own children is both profoundly alarming and a massive overreach. These policies effectively demolish parental authority and allow the state to assume a role for which it has no rightful or reasonable claim. There is simply no credible evidence to support the belief that parents do not have in mind the best interest of their transgender children. Moreover, keeping such information from parents almost certainly violates the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which gives parents virtually unlimited rights to review their child’s school records. By circumventing this law in spirit, if not in practice, schools not only undermine parental rights, but also risk legal consequences. Today there are some twenty active court challenges to these policies, and as Luke Berg, a lawyer at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, who is litigating three of these cases, describes the situation, “It’s hard to imagine a faster way to destroy the public education system than to tell parents that one of the conditions of sending their children to public school is ceding their parental role to teachers.”

Indeed, there are no words adequate to capture this level of institutional hubris. If teachers in our nation’s public schools wish to restore and maintain Americans’ trust in education, they must be willing to acknowledge a simple fact about their profession: They’re not free agents, not activists or ideologues, but government employees with no reason or right to usurp parental authority.

A public education system that ignores or overrules the fundamental role of parents, placing the state in a position of superior authority over children will not be accepted for long. If this is the hill public education chooses to die on, don’t be surprised if it gets its wish.

About the Author

Robert Pondiscio