Republicans fulfilled one of their big campaign promises on Friday when the House passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act. It has no chance of becoming law, not with Democrats controlling the White House and Senate. But it still offers an important window into how the congressional GOP views the ongoing war on education that’s being waged around the country.
The legislation isn’t a complete nightmare. Some parts of it make sense and could have easily been a bipartisan effort, including a requirement that parents be notified when violence occurs on school grounds and a ban on schools selling student data for commercial purposes. The bulk of it, though, was drafted as a blueprint for the harassment of teachers, administrators and school boards that has escalated over the past three years.
Those confrontations have been part of a supposedly grassroots movement from parents who believe that schools have gone too far in their liberalism. Often it turns out that whatever concerns are being expressed — Covid mitigation in classrooms, teachers pushing “critical race theory,” or pro-LGBTQ materials “grooming” students” — are getting amplified and coordinated through groups that just happen to be filled with Republican operatives. Accordingly, no matter the actual topic, the volume of their shouting has become fodder for a broader political strategy from Republicans.
During Virginia’s gubernatorial race in 2021, Glenn Youngkin successfully positioned himself with suburban voters as just a guy who wants to let parents have a say in their children’s education. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in tandem with his state’s GOP-dominated Legislature, has pushed the envelope further, launching a blitz of policies that curtail teaching about race, sex and gender in the state’s schools. From North Dakota to Missouri to Texas, “parental rights” are at the center of the rhetoric behind blocking trans kids in sports, banning books in school libraries and anything else that makes conservatives uncomfortable.
It’s easy to see how the Parents Bill of Rights fits into that broader agenda. Taken together, if enacted, the bill would force schools to provide fodder for astroturf groups to then pressure those schools more effectively.
The bill would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to require any school district receiving federal funds to post a Notice of Rights on its website. The notice would include the right to “review, and make copies of, at no cost, the curriculum of their child’s school” and “to know if a school employee or contractor acts to change a minor child’s gender markers, pronouns or preferred name.”
School libraries would be mandated to provide parents “at the beginning of each school year, a list of books and other reading materials available in the library of such school,” making it easier to find titles to ban. Schools would be prohibited from acting as the “agent of a parent” in approving vaccinations or the use of “technology” by students. Parents would also have to provide their consent before any mental health screening takes place at schools, a clear reference to screenings related to gender dysphoria.
Even the most innocuous sounding clauses have more sinister motives. Take for example the provision requiring that parents are provided “the opportunity to address the school board of such local educational agency on issues impacting the education of children in such agency.” That’s a nod to the Justice Department’s warning in 2021 about threats to school boards. Right-wing media has spun the attorney general’s order into the federal government threatening conservative parents who just want to express themselves to administrators.
Naturally, none of these new mandates are provided any new funding under this bill. In fact, it would be amazing if the House GOP voted to keep public school funding at its current level, given Republicans’ long-running campaign to give priority to charter schools and private education funding. (See: The part in that notice of rights about providing parents with “information about all schools in which their child can enroll, including options for enrolling in or transferring to … charter schools.”)
While the bill will not become law anytime soon, it highlights how narrowly the GOP views which parents should have their rights respected in schools. Nowhere is there anything about the right of parents of LGBTQ students to have their children’s’ pronouns respected. Nowhere is there any protection of teachers against retribution for teaching minority students the truth about their past.
As with so many laws that authorize bigotry, the language seems decidedly neutral. But it’s clear that Republicans only believe white, straight, conservative parents should get to have a say in what everyone’s kids get to learn.