Will Swaim: Garland's attempts to silence parents nothing new for Californians


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You may know John Swett as California’s fourth superintendent of public instruction, the man who, at the height of the Civil War, made public schools tuition-free in California.  

What’s less well known is Swett’s weird contempt for families. Swett saw public schools as factories for the creation of people who, having “arrived at the age of maturity belong, not to the parents, but to the State, to society, to the country.” 

Understand that – the idea that Americans belong not to themselves but to “the State” – and you begin to understand why Swett believed the family had to be kept out of any serious discussions about education.  


Parents, he wrote, were obstacles to the “complete harmony and unity of action” required of modern governance. He dismissed as “entirely erroneous” the “vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers. As it would be manifestly improper for the teacher to undertake to dictate to the parents in their own house, so it would be improper for the parents to dictate to him in his, the schoolhouse.”  

It’s taken 170 years, but Attorney General Merrick Garland delivered earlier this month on Swett’s ambition, directing the FBI to investigate and ultimately silence pesky moms and dads who hold the extremist view that they should have any say in their children’s education.  

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Garland said he was responding to a now-infamous letter in which the National School Boards Association (NSBA) claimed activist parents are guilty of “domestic terrorism and hate crimes” against teachers and school board members.  

A close reading of the group’s “evidence” reveals few examples that rise to the level of crimes, and none that would justify the appearance of FBI agents on your doorstep. At worst, they’re examples of elected officials getting some pretty candid – but entirely legal – feedback for decisions that value teacher union demands and wokeness above student needs. The NSBA’s singular citation out of California, for example, was a Poway school board meeting that adjourned early after parents demanded they be let into the boardroom in numbers exceeding COVID restrictions. There were no arrests or reports of harm in that incident. 

Local law enforcement has the authority to step in if school board members are being harmed or threatened; any real threats or acts of violence must be dealt with fully, immediately – and locally. Federal investigations of parents whose “crime” was making school board members feel uncomfortable is not the solution. It is indeed a threat to the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, assembly and petition.  

The nation’s second-largest school district has caved to union pressure and agreed to lock out parents.

Unfortunately for California parents, this is merely the latest move in a well-established trend to remove them from the decision-making process in their children’s lives. 

We don’t have to travel back to the 1860s. This year alone, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 1184, a law allowing minor children to hide medical information from their parents, including information about abortions and “gender-affirming” procedures. By requiring insurance companies to keep secret certain medical procedures from parents who are the policyholders, the new law reduces California parents to bill payers who aren’t made aware of, let alone allowed authority over, major and sometimes irreversible operations their children may undergo.  

Or consider the new contract for the United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing 30,000 educators who teach half a million children. In addition to giving teachers raises while reducing live instruction time, the new contract expressly prohibits parents from recording a teacher without the instructor’s approval. This stipulation seeks to undo one of the few silver linings to come from forced Zoom schooling over the past year and a half: parents finally saw with their own eyeballs what was going on in classrooms.  

The nation’s second-largest school district has caved to union pressure and agreed to lock out parents, or at least assure they’re not allowed to collect proof of what’s being taught in their child’s classroom.  

And now, lawmakers are working to remove the personal- and religious-belief exemption from Newsom’s sweeping COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students, just as they did in 2015 for other childhood vaccines. Completely disregarding the importance of parents making health care decisions for their minor children, the bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, declared parental authority in such matters as a “loophole” that needs closing. John Swett would be delighted. 

In the management of California schools, the loudest voices have long been those of billionaire teachers unions, which drive public policy decisions from the state down to classroom level through campaign contributions and lobbying. It’s evident in the decisions to keep California schools locked down more than any other in the nation while the state enjoyed the nation’s lowest COVID rates. It’s positively clear in the effort to gut the state’s charter schools despite their exemplary performance during the pandemic. And it’s painfully obvious in the push to enact a new math curriculum that eliminates advanced math courses for gifted students and threads critical race theory into the lessons.  

It’s this imbalance of power and priorities that has moved so many parents to begin attending school board meetings. And when speech is suppressed, Californians turn to the initiative process. There are 23 active school board recalls underway in California, more than double the number in any other state. They’re unfolding in both the reddest and bluest parts of the state. They serve as an important sign that the status quo isn’t working for parents, and a motivation for the National School Boards Association to do everything in its power to try to silence parents.  


That’s why my organization, the California Policy Center, is asking parents everywhere to call for local officials to end their support of the National School Boards Association, and to tell Merrick Garland to rescind his unconstitutional and dangerous move to silence parents. 

Unions and the school board members they elect have a voice – a loud one. If Garland continues on his ill-intentioned quest to silence parents, no one will be left to speak out for our children. We’ll be left instead with John Swett’s dystopian ambition of unchecked education bureaucrats. That’s the real threat to public safety. 



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