When Jenn Schneider and her husband, Chris, withdrew their two elementary-age boys from the Billings school system last fall, the decision was heartbreaking. Schneider had played an active role in their education since her oldest son’s early days in kindergarten, volunteering to help with school events and in classrooms, and she developed a deep respect for and connection to the educators in her children’s lives.

“We really do like the public school system in Billings,” Schneider told Montana Free Press in an interview this week. “One of my best friends is a teacher. We’ve gotten to know our public school, our elementary school, pretty well and we really do love the principal and the teachers. Public school is what we chose for education.”

The problem was masking. 

On the eve of the fall 2021 semester, an outbreak of COVID-19 on Skyview High School’s varsity football team prompted Superintendent Greg Upham to issue a last-minute mandatory masking policy for all students and staff in the district. Schneider said her sons hadn’t fared well with masking the previous year. Her youngest, in first grade, hadn’t developed an attachment to his teacher or the classroom, while her oldest, in fourth grade, began to experience challenges processing information that she thought he’d shaken years before. Both, Schneider said, also exhibited anxiety. They’d pushed through the 2020-21 school year hoping the district’s pandemic protocols would relax the following fall. After Upham’s announcement, though, Schneider said her boys were “a wreck over the whole thing.”

“It was a heartfelt conversation between my kids and I with a lot of tears and a lot of emotions about what this really looks like for us and how we can move forward in the best way for our family,” she said. In the end, Schneider said, the boys asked to be homeschooled, and as daunting as the prospect was, she agreed.

Cheryl Tusken, state director for the nonprofit Parents’ Rights in Education, speaks to dozens of parental rights activists gathered on the steps of the Montana Capitol during a rally last October. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

Throughout the pandemic, health measures adopted by schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in difficult, even painful conversations for families nationwide. Parents on either side of the masking debate have expressed frustration and outright anger toward school officials for doing too much or not doing enough. Days after Upham’s announcement, hundreds of people gathered outside the Yellowstone County Courthouse to oppose the mask mandate. Schneider was there. So, too, was state Superintendent Elsie Arntzen. 

But as that protest and other public gatherings demonstrate, school masking in schools is not an isolated issue. It has become inextricably tied to a larger movement. 

“Parental rights” has become a rallying cry in communities across Montana over the past year, fusing social and religious beliefs, political agendas and the personal lives of families into a concentrated body of activism and messaging. Members of the movement have coalesced at school board meetings, on courthouse lawns and on the steps of the state Capitol to call for a cessation of masking policies as well as the removal — or prohibition — of certain lessons, images and words from classrooms. The specific goals and concerns may vary from person to person, but the overarching complaint is uniform: Public education has overstepped the bounds of its institutional authority, usurping the parental prerogative to shape their children’s values. Parental rights advocates want that power back. 

“Public education has gotten to be so big that the citizens are left behind as ‘education experts’ from the [U.S.] Department of Education make decisions for the smallest of communities, and local school boards rubber stamp policies that are attached to funds,” Cheryl Tusken, director of the Montana chapter of Parents’ Rights in Education, wrote via email. “This then leaves parents feeling like they don’t get to have a say in the education of their children and that they are not welcome.”

Parents’ Rights in Education (PRIE) is a national nonprofit that opposes mandatory masking policies, critical race theory, comprehensive sex education, and what it calls an “out-of-balance representation of LGBTQ ideology” in public schools. Tusken said the Montana chapter was established in May 2021.

Specifying the rights of parents in educational settings is tricky business. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t explicitly outline any. Advocates such as Tusken rely on legal opinions in a handful of U.S. Supreme Court rulings to assert that parents have the right to direct the spiritual, emotional, mental and educational upbringing of their children. Republican-led efforts in Congress over the past decade to formally enshrine those rights in the Constitution have repeatedly failed to gain traction, but have resurfaced as recently as last fall in response to the latest wave of national debate.

In Montana, the legal picture gained some definition last spring with the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 400. Sponsored by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, the new law prohibits government agencies from interfering with “the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their children” and establishes that right as grounds for parents to pursue legal remedies. Parental rights advocates hailed SB 400 as a significant political victory, while state public education associations opposed it on the grounds that it could expose school districts to costly legal battles at taxpayers’ expense. 

That prediction began to play out almost immediately, with parent plaintiffs filing a pair of lawsuits in Missoula and Bozeman last fall alleging that school masking policies violated the new law. District court judges in both cases rejected requests to block the school policies, as did a Yellowstone County judge presented with a similar request in December. The Missoula and Bozeman plaintiffs — among them the liberty-oriented nonprofit Stand Up Montana — filed a combined appeal to the Montana Supreme Court last month, characterizing the case in an opening brief as a matter of individuality, privacy and a “fundamental desire to forge one’s own path.”

“The school districts do not rule over the schools with limitless authority,” the brief said. “They, like all other governmental entities, are constrained by the law and the Constitution.”

All three districts revised their policies last month to make masking optional.

Other parents have greeted the masking debate as a call to a different sort of action. When Jim Riley first moved to the Flathead from California in 2019, he said, he felt he’d finally found a home that aligned with his family’s conservative values. He and his wife enrolled their two elementary-age children in Kalispell’s Smith Valley district and looked to get involved in the community. His wife joined the local parent-teacher committee. He launched a campaign for a seat on the school board. He won that seat in May. The board voted in late summer to make masking optional in the fall, but before that decision was made, Riley said, he faced a personal choice: withdraw his kids from Smith Valley and enroll them in a nearby private school, Stillwater Christian, or miss the window for private enrollment. He opted for the former.

“They were taking a student roll call over the summer of who was coming back,” Riley recalled. “At that time they’d not dropped the mandates officially from the school, and I had to make the very tough decision, especially based on my elected position, to not enroll my kids in the school that I was on the board of.”

When the district did relax its policy in the fall to make masks optional, Riley decided to keep his children at Stillwater Christian, describing it as “a far better opportunity” for them. He said his family has no plans to return the kids to Smith Valley. Asked about serving on the board of a school his kids don’t attend, Riley said his exposure to private education in his community gives him insights that could benefit public schools.

“As a community member, I pay taxes to [Smith Valley] school, as well as I have a vested interest in the education of the students in the community because they will be future leaders and business owners, teachers, coaches,” Riley said. “So if I can bring great tools, resources, education materials and foundational elements to the kids in my own community, we all benefit from that.”

When Arntzen faced pointed criticism from public education leaders in December about ongoing issues within her agency, Riley was one of two Montana school board members to co-write a letter in her defense. The letter, which was signed by 21 Republican lawmakers and hundreds of Montana citizens (Jenn Schneider among them), commended Arntzen for helping parents resist “forced masking.” And while Arntzen has publicly encouraged Montanans to treat school officials with respect, the plaudits from Riley and his co-writer, Missoula County Public Schools Trustee Michael Gehl, underscored Arntzen’s popularity in the parental rights movement that’s working to restrain those officials’ authority.

“You have been stalwart in promoting the rights of parents over the superintendents and their radical agenda,” the letter read. “You are a true pioneer and champion of parental rights and parental choice.”

Jim Riley, right, with his wife, Samantha, and daughters Dearylin and Reagan at their home near Kalispell on March 3, 2022. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

The letter also highlighted a critical facet of Montana’s current parental rights debate: It’s not just about masking. Opposition to pandemic-induced policies opened a fissure in the public education conversation, exposing an undercurrent of frustration and distrust about what schools are teaching and how. 

Tusken said one of the most important targets her organization has identified is “sexually obscene or inappropriate books” in public schools. The Billings School Board weighed that issue in January after a local parent challenged the presence of two books — the autobiographical novel “Lawn Boy” and the graphic-novel-style memoir “Gender Queer” — in high school libraries due to depictions of sex. The board received hundreds of emails, a majority reportedly opposing the challenge, and voted unanimously to keep both books on their shelves. One trustee suggested that the push for removal was tied to “an out-of-state agenda.”

Trustees of the public ImagineIF Libraries in Kalispell reviewed a similar complaint over both books in January, voting unanimously to retain “Lawn Boy” and delaying a decision on “Gender Queer” until the board could update its policies to allow for a book’s removal.  

Tusken said she wasn’t directly involved in either challenge, but did become concerned about a different book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, last year. Her inquiries about the book’s presence in Bozeman led her to discover that two local high school libraries had copies of “Gender Queer.” She said she spoke with district officials about her concerns, but since she doesn’t have children in the district she has been unable to lodge a formal complaint. 

“We as parents want to protect the innocence of children and we feel it is our role, not the school’s, to decide when, what and to what extent our children learn about sexual relations,” Tusken said. “Schools should be partnering with parents to help us educate our children, not undermining their ability to raise their children in traditional values.”

That concern is tied to a broader effort within the parental rights movement to shield children from content some parents deem objectionable and to oppose comprehensive sex education, which fueled the Legislature’s passage of Senate Bill 99 last year. The new law prohibits health care providers that perform abortions from participating in in-school sex education. Lawmakers also passed a bill addressing another core issue cited by Parents’ Rights in Education: LGBTQ-inclusivity in school activities. House Bill 112 bars transgender women and girls from participating on women’s school sports teams, and is currently facing a legal challenge in Gallatin County District Court.

“Schools should be partnering with parents to help us educate our children, not undermining their ability to raise their children in traditional values.”

Cheryl Tusken, director of the Montana chapter of Parents’ Rights in Education

But the hottest topic under the parental rights banner in recent months has been the debate over critical race theory. The term refers to a decades-old movement among legal scholars and civil rights activists to thoroughly examine the interplay between racial justice and law. School officials, teachers and state education associations have repeatedly said that CRT is not taught in any Montana public schools.

That hasn’t deterred parental rights advocates from raising the specter of such teachings in public discussions about school curriculum and policy. In Montana and nationally, CRT has become a catch-all for any instruction that critics perceive as advancing notions of white guilt and white privilege or characterizing racial disparities as the result of systemic racism. Attorney General Austin Knudsen entered the fray last May, issuing a legal opinion declaring the teaching of CRT to be unlawfully discriminatory and pledging his office’s support to parents or students who allege race-based discrimination in the classroom. Knudsen wrote the opinion at Arntzen’s request.

“Individuals may not be instructed or compelled to apologize for their race or forced to admit privilege based on their race,” Knudsen wrote. “It is illegal, likewise, to advocate that a particular race is negative or evil. It is also illegal for curricula to instruct [a] student that members of a particular race or racial identity pose specific dangers to other individuals.”

Public conceptions of CRT have become so expansive that educators have been forced to reexamine institutional vocabulary they’ve relied on for decades. Last month, a state advisory council proposed adding the word “equity” to the Professional Educators of Montana Code of Ethics. Despite repeated explanations of the word’s specific meaning in education circles, public commenters invoked concerns about CRT in opposing the change. That argument mirrored a contentious debate in the Bozeman school district last fall over the adoption of a new equity policy that board trustees insisted was designed solely to ensure that individual students receive the resources necessary to support their success.

“Equity’s been in education for a long, long, long, long, long, long time,” Bozeman trustee Lei-Anna Bertelsen told MTFP. “We have Indian Education for All. We have the Individuals with Disabilities [in Education] Act, where, you know, students with disabilities, we’re required to give them the least restrictive environments and provide all kinds of support. I mean, it’s nothing new in education, so educators are not scared by this word.”

The distinction hasn’t hit home with parental rights advocates, who continue to view “equity” as a code word affiliated with larger social and racial justice movements. Through that lens, the word is a red flag for a political agenda, one they argue will open the door for CRT in schools and damage student performance by equalizing standards based on a lowered common denominator.

State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, front, listens in at an October 2021 parental rights rally at the Montana Capitol after delivering a speech to the crowd. Pictured behind her is Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, who authored a new state parental rights law last year. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

Bertelsen joined the board in May 2021. Parental rights didn’t come up during her campaign, she said, but blowback over the equity policy became immediately apparent that summer during the board’s first in-person meeting in nearly a year. Dozens of parents, including Tusken, showed up to oppose the policy as a Trojan horse for CRT. Bertelsen, whose grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines, found the debate “shocking” — particularly, she said, as the only woman of color on the board.

“You’re telling a person of color that racism doesn’t exist?” Bertselsen said. “That’s — that’s unbelievable, right?”

After tabling the policy that summer, the board introduced a revised version in November that didn’t include the word “equity.” Bertelsen said she was disheartened by the concession. She said the spreadsheet she created to track public comment showed that 85% of the 500 letters she received were in favor of the equity language. Even so, she’s “grateful” the episode presented an opportunity to publicly discuss equity and institutional racism.

“At the end of the day, it is a better policy than what we used to have in … helping more students and helping all of our students to succeed,” Bertelsen said.

Ryan Zinke, Montana’s former Republican congressman and a current Republican congressional candidate in Montana’s new western district, proclaimed the board’s removal of the equity language a “big win” for Bozeman parents in December. Among the hashtags listed in his Facebook post were “#crt,” “#criticalracetheory,” “#conservative” and “#values.” 

Despite this and other high-profile victories, parental rights advocates continue to express frustration that their voices have not been heard. And their search for a solution has brought the movement to a far older but equally contentious arena of educational debate: school choice

Tusken said PRIE’s policy priorities for the 2023 Legislature will focus on “curriculum transparency;” again increasing the cap on tax credits for donations to public and private school scholarships; and directing state education dollars to private accounts that parents can use to enroll their kids in non-public schools and programs. Past efforts to establish such accounts specifically for special needs students have drawn fierce opposition from public education associations, which argue that the accounts would divert public funds into private hands, harming schools and students alike.

For Kendall Cotton, president and CEO of the conservative-leaning think tank Frontier Institute, those policy goals reflect why the parental rights debate has become so prominent in Montana. Earlier this year, Cotton penned an op-ed applauding the movement and praising Arntzen’s embrace of it.

“The critical race theory stuff, the mask mandates, those are all really on the surface of this problem,” Cotton told MTFP. “The deeper problem is that without the freedom to choose another option, parents really just lack control over directing their child’s education.”

While that assessment is a driving force in recent activism and debate, it falls short of acknowledging the steps public education advocates have taken to respect parents’ institutional and individual authority. Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton said the model policies drafted by his organization for use by Montana school boards contain opt-out provisions for numerous school activities including sex education, school surveys, health screenings and vaccination requirements. Those same model policies, he added, grant parents access to instructional and library materials, and allow districts to release students for religious instruction off of school property without adversely affecting their attendance record. Melton also noted that the Montana Constitution guarantees a citizens’ right to observe and participate in public proceedings — a guarantee that includes a parent’s right to voice their views to school boards.

“Folks are free to raise those issues and to drop their kids out of the curriculum that might be objectionable to them in some way,” Melton said.

“The critical race theory stuff, the mask mandates, those are all really on the surface of this problem. The deeper problem is that without the freedom to choose another option, parents really just lack control over directing their child’s education.”

Frontier Institute President and CEO Kendall Cotton

Some of the concerns raised in Montana within the past year are nationalized issues that have found their way into the state, Melton continued, and school boards will work through them as they come up. Increasingly, he’s seen districts request his organization’s assistance with community surveys, listening sessions and strategic planning.

“I think some of it is just opening the lines of communication and making sure that the entirety of your community is heard,” he said. “School districts do more than just conduct open meetings.”

At the heart of Montana’s parental rights debate, however, is a fundamental disagreement over what public education should be. Schools nationwide have tried in recent decades to create a safer, more supportive environment for their most at-risk and vulnerable students. Classrooms have become more than just a place to learn reading, writing and arithmetic. In recognition of the needs of marginalized student populations, schools have increasingly expanded their mission to help encourage healthy socialization, emotional well-being, tolerance of difference and critical thinking skills. Such lessons inevitably overlap with personal values, leading to accusations of politically driven indoctrination and, in some cases, a view that teachers should stick strictly to fact-based learning.

Prior to withdrawing her boys from their Billings elementary school, Schneider said, she was always on alert for clues that what they were learning in class didn’t align with her family’s values. When she found a conflict, she greeted it as an opportunity to engage her kids in discussion and supplement their public education, rather than undercut it. Kids spend a lot of time with their teachers, Schneider said, and that level of influence makes it imperative that parents pay close attention.

“You have to be so intentional about the time that you do get with your kids,” she said, “because you’re missing a lot of those small conversations.”

Schneider also acknowledged that not all parents are that involved. She recalled a conversation with a public school teacher in Billings who happens to be her lifelong best friend. Through their talk, Schneider said, she came to realize why lessons on basic skills like social etiquette have become necessary, and why that may not sit well with parents who view such lessons as rightfully their domain.

“She said, ‘I’m teaching kids how to look somebody in the eye and shake their hand. I’m teaching kids the basic things that parents should be teaching them that aren’t being taught,’” Schneider said. “The parents are handing over that education of being a member of society to our school system instead of teaching those [skills] at home. And I think that’s where the problems start to creep in, because that’s where your values come in.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...