‘Parents’ Bill of Rights’ Underscores Furor Over Curriculum and Transparency in Schools

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New legislation in Congress to prioritize parents’ rights to know what books their children are reading in school and the identity of guest presenters in classrooms underscores how such culturally divisive issues could stay in the political spotlight as conservative politicians champion what they see as a winning issue in 2022.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said his “Parents’ Bill of Rights Act”—introduced Tuesday, according to his office—would prohibit nondisclosure agreements concerning curriculum; let parents make copies of classroom material; require schools to have parents opt their children into field trips, assemblies, and other extracurricular activities; and in general require more transparency from school boards and educators concerning things like student records and safety.

His legislation would also institute cuts in federal funding for districts that repeatedly flout such requirements, and would allow parents to sue and get injunctive relief.

As a practical matter, school board meetings and financial contracts between districts and external groups are already generally subject to laws governing open meetings and public records. Other provisions of Hawley’s bill—like a requirement to have parents opt their students into activities outside classrooms, and parents’ power to review curriculum materials and activities at a detailed level—could in theory create major headaches for schools. And it’s unclear how federal funding cuts like the kind Hawley proposes would work in practice.

Hawley’s bill is unlikely to get much traction in Congress. But as a political matter, his legislation highlights and underscores intensifying disagreements and ill-feeling about what schools are teaching, and to what extent the concept of parental rights represent a new national movement or an attempt to undermine public schools.

Supporters say people are rightfully objecting to opaque and damaging policies from often-unaccountable teachers and school officials. Critics charge that such efforts, cheered on and aided by cynical politicians, are really meant to intimidate educators and also hurt students’ learning opportunities in the process.

Fights over critical race theory are some of the most prominent disagreements over what schools teach, although disputes about objectionable sexual content in books have also started making national headlines recently.

Following the Nov. 2 victory of Republican Glenn Youngkin in the Virginia governor’s race that featured extensive rhetoric about parents’ rights and controversial policies in local districts, Republicans have pledged to put education issues—specifically, what parents can rightfully demand from schools—front and center as the 2022 midterm elections. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said immediately after Youngkin’s win that his party would introduce a “parents’ bill of rights” in Congress in the near future.

Taking a ‘back seat to radical politics’

Hawley had a stark assessment of public schools and education officials in a statement about his new bill that reflects recent rhetoric, particularly from conservative leaders.

“Education has taken a back seat to radical politics in many schools and parents are taking notice,” he said, citing critical race theory as well as a push from a national school boards group for the Biden administration to intervene and protect educators from threats and violence. “It’s time to give control back to parents, not woke bureaucrats, and empower them to start a new era of openness in education.”

In early October, Hawley sharply criticized the Biden administration’s decision to use the FBI and other measures to protect school board members against threats and illegal activities, saying that it amounted to attack on parents merely speaking out about their schools.

Recent polling has indicated that the public’s trust in Democrats and Republicans to handle education is almost evenly split, which would represent a decline for Democrats who are already concerned about holding onto their congressional majorities in 2022, and Democratic governors seeking reelection next year.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed “Parents’ Bill of Rights” legislation into law earlier this year, and it’s possible Hawley’s bill is at least partially inspired by that and other laws. Florida’s law states that parents’ fundamental rights to make decisions about their children’s health care, education, and other matters can’t be infringed by the state or public schools. But opponents of the law said that it could end up outing gay and transgender students in their schools against their will.

Like Hawley’s bill, the Florida law requires schools to obtain permission from parents before collecting a student’s “biometric data.”

DeSantis has put parents’ power to make individual decisions about their children at the center of his ongoing battle to prevent Florida districts from adopting universal, no-exceptions mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Such laws, along with Hawley’s bill, could inspire new interest among state lawmakers interested in addressing and capitalizing on such issues.

New burdens for schools, but for parents, too?

Hawley’s office provided a summary of the Parents’ Bill of Rights, but did not make the full bill text available in response to a request Tuesday from Education Week.

Hawley’s bill includes parents’ “right to know what their minor child is being taught in school, including, but not limited to, curricula, books, and other instructional materials.”

“School and school districts shall be prohibited from requiring nondisclosure agreements or similar forms for parental review of curricula, and shall instead allow parents to make copies of curriculum documents,” the summary states.

It also says parents would have “the right to information on who is teaching their minor child, including guest lecturers and outside presenters.” And it would require schools to promptly notify parents “of all reported incidents pertaining to student safety, including all crimes or misdemeanors committed by teachers or other school employees.

Alhough there are significant parts of Hawley’s bill that appear to be already covered by existing law, some sections could pose new complications for schools.

For example, its language conferring on parents the “right to visit the school and check in on their minor child during school hours” (according to the summary) would create potential issues for schools’ security policies, as well as complications for any COVID-19 rules they might have in effect, said Julia Martin, the legislative director for Brustein and Manasevit, an education-focused law firm.

Martin said that while supporters of Hawley’s legislation might dismiss concerns about any administrative burden it would theoretically put on schools, the burdens would likely extend to parents as well. For instance, parents might end up signing a boatload of permission slips for students to attend things like pep rallies, and students might easily miss out on enriching activities and programs.

Such things can suck away important time and money, Martin said. “There’s a lot of practical headaches for everybody,” she added.

Hawley’s bill joins several moves by Republicans in Congress to highlight cultural and political divisions involving parents and schools.

An Oct. 21 House resolution from Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., stated that “that the First Amendment rights of parents at school board meetings shall not be infringed” and condemned the Biden Justice Department’s moves to protect school officials from illegal threats. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., introduced a similar resolution in October.

A bill from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., introduced last month would require public schools that receive federal funds “to obtain parental consent before facilitating a child’s gender transition in any form, and for other purposes.” Disputes in local districts about student pronouns and discussions of gender have made headlines recently, and reflect ongoing partisan divisions in Washington over the U.S. Department of Education’s approach to transgender students.

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