32 states and counting: Why parents bills of rights are sweeping US [Christian Science Monitor]

March 24, 2023

Article from the Christian Science Monitor:


When it comes to parental bills of rights, not all legislation is created equal.

The House on Friday narrowly passed House Resolution 5, known as the Parents Bill of Rights Act, which would amend existing federal education laws. A Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution also has been proposed.

Multiple pieces of proposed legislation at the state level seek broad protections for parents, using language such as to “direct the upbringing” of their children. A bill in Arkansas, meanwhile, revolves around medical records when a child is removed from parental or guardian custody. And legislation in Connecticut would create a bill of rights for parents of students learning English as a second language.

The proposed laws have fueled questions about the role parents should play in their children’s education. At the same time, they have fanned partisan flames, weaponizing a longstanding concept – parental rights – that academic experts and advocates alike say should not be politically charged.

So what’s driving all of this? Will Estrada, president of the Parental Rights Foundation, says the pandemic accelerated parents’ desire to have more say in children’s schooling, regardless of political inclinations.

“There’s varying degrees of what parents want as a response,” he says. “But I think the fact that you have such a broad range of parental rights legislation really speaks to the fact that the legislators and elected officials are trying to respond to the concerns.”

As of mid-March, proposed parental rights legislation has emerged in at least 32 states, up from 18 states in 2022, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some states, lawmakers are considering two or more pieces of such legislation.

What’s in a term?

In Connecticut, the strife over parental rights may land on the steps of a public university.

Families for Freedom, a grassroots organization that advocates for parental rights, has planned a rally next week at the University of Connecticut School of Law, which is hosting a symposium titled “Are Parental Rights Always in the Best Interest of Children?”

Susan Zabohonski, founder of Families for Freedom, says the group formed during the pandemic, shortly before Connecticut ended religious exemptions for childhood vaccine requirements for schools. Now, it numbers roughly 1,700 followers on Facebook and 200 active members throughout the state, she says.

For Ms. Zabohonski, whose daughter attends a private Christian school, the group’s work is guided by what she sees as a societal “chipping away at the family unit.”

In action, she says, their work involves educating people in towns across Connecticut about the legislative process and parental rights.

“When people feel educated on a subject, I think they feel a little more empowered,” she says.

The nationwide parental rights movement, however, has taken heat for association with hostile interactions at school board meetings, where hot-button issues such as pandemic protocols, critical race theory, sex education, and gender identity have sparked public outcry.

Part of the problem is the discourse surrounding the term “parental rights,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian and author of “Classroom Wars: Language, Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture.”

It’s often used to describe conservative activism around education, which, she says, while accurate in some respects, leads to an “impoverished” understanding of an issue with far greater nuance. Ms. Mehlman Petrzela contends that most parents, regardless of their background, ethnicity, or political leanings, “want to have some insight, if not control, over their kids’ experiences at school.”

She points to a Supreme Court decision this week as an example of a parental rights issue. The justices unanimously sided with a deaf student, Miguel Luna Perez, who had sued a public school district, alleging that he received an inadequate education. Mr. Perez and his parents had argued that aides who were supposed to help him translate lessons were often absent or unqualified.

As Justice Neil Gorsuch noted in the court’s opinion, the ruling “holds consequences not just for Mr. Perez but for a great many children with disabilities and their parents.”

Ms. Mehlman Petrzela says the discourse could benefit from more balance in the form of default assumptions – that teachers have expertise and deserve trust, and that parents care about their children and deserve to know what’s happening in schools.

“If we operate from that set of assumptions, then when difficult situations do come up, there is an opportunity for a much more productive resolution that doesn’t involve, you know, online mobs and angry protests and threats,” she says.

The legislative landscape

It’s too soon to say how the proposals will fare during this lawmaking cycle. At the state level, most remain pending in legislatures, and at least six have failed this year. In prior legislative sessions, the bulk of them failed – with a few notable exceptions, such as in Florida, which in 2021 approved its version of a parental bill of rights. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also championed the Parental Rights in Education Act, which critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law, which his administration is now seeking to expand through 12th grade.

At least 10 states have existing statutes that mention parental rights, six of which are broad provisions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states have more specific language geared toward certain student groups or issues.

The murkiness of legislative success, however, didn’t stop Connecticut state Sen. Rob Sampson, a Republican, from giving it a try. His proposed bill – one of several in the state that fall under the umbrella of parental rights – would have protected parents’ ability to withdraw their children from courses, without explanation, unless the class was required for graduation. It noted that parents “should remain the ultimate authority in what their children are being taught in school.”

State Senator Sampson described it as “dead on arrival,” given Democrats’ control of both houses of the legislature and governor’s office. But he wanted his constituents to know where he stood on the issue and see if any Democrats would signal support.

He says parents’ growing distrust with local school boards and insights they gleaned while children learned remotely are spurring the rise of parental rights-themed legislation.

“Now, it’s less about the local school district making decisions to suit the parents,” he says. “It’s about the school district taking direction from people that are involved in political activism.”

But other organizations have come out swinging against what they see as a culture war-influenced movement that could lead to book bans and curriculum changes. Ariel Taylor Smith, senior director of policy and action at the National Parents Union, says the proposed legislation creates “unnecessary tension” and distracts from more important concerns.

Instead, Ms. Smith says legislation should be laser-focused on academic progress, especially after pandemic disruptions left many students behind in reading and math.

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