School buses wait Tuesday outside Thomas Hart Benton Elementary School in Columbia to take students home from the first day of classes. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)
WASHINGTON — A national “Parents Bill of Rights” is headed for a full U.S. House vote after the House Committee on Education and the Workforce early Thursday approved the measure designed to empower parents to inspect books and other teaching materials in schools.
Lawmakers on the committee debated the GOP-backed bill that would federally mandate parents’ rights and new reporting requirements at the tens of thousands of public schools across the nation.
Critics argue many of the proposed rights are already ensured by local and state law — for example, a parent’s right to view a school’s budget or speak at a public school board meeting.
After a 16-hour markup — that also included debate and passage of a separate bill to regulate transgender girl athletes in schools — the panel approved the legislation in a party-line vote, 25-17.
“Parents nurture our future engineers, pilots, electricians, full time parents and, even, public-school employees. Unfortunately, their God-given right to make decisions for their children has been ignored, and at times, attacked. So, Republicans are taking a stand and advancing H.R. 5,” Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, said in her opening remarks.
Ranking member Bobby Scott, of Virginia, criticized the legislation, saying it “does not take any meaningful steps to increase or support parental engagement” and “would create unnecessary and burdensome reporting requirements on schools that would divert essential resources and personnel away from meeting families’ real needs without actually creating any new rights.”
H.R. 5, or the Parents Bill of Rights Act, aims to amend existing federal education laws to codify parents’ and guardians’ access to school curricula, library books and other materials, give parents advance notice prior to medical or mental health screenings, and mandate a standard number of parent-teacher meetings.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana said Wednesday the bill could reach the House floor as soon as March 20, where a GOP majority is expected to pass it. The bill has garnered 106 Republican sponsors.
The bill’s forecast is less favorable in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority.
“This bill is about one simple and fundamental principle. Parents should always have a seat at the table when it comes to their child’s education,” said Louisiana Republican Rep. Julia Letlow, who reintroduced the bill this Congress in early March.
“In my home state of Louisiana, we have a parents bill of rights that passed in 2014 with broad bipartisan support, and we see it work every single day,” continued Letlow, who previously worked in post-secondary education.
“Now my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and some of their political allies have said that this (federal) bill is an attack on our hard-working teachers, that it will lead to Congress dictating curriculum to local schools, or telling librarians what they can and cannot have on their shelf. But in that argument, it’s very clear that their underlying message is that they don’t want schools to have to be accountable to parents.”
Democrats on the panel criticized the bill as unnecessary, vague and administratively burdensome, and also asked how enforcement at the federal level would be implemented.
“I know parental input is fundamental to children’s achievement, and all educators know that. However, much of what H.R. 5 poses has already been addressed through previous state and local legislation,” said Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, a former educator and elementary school principal.
“This bill fosters a toxic relationship between educators and parents and continues the foolish, misguided games we’ve seen playing out in school board meetings across the country.”
Wilson called the bill “a bunch of bull” and “a cheap stunt.”
“Where in (this) bill of rights, does it say children have guaranteed access to broadband and must be issued a computer? Where does it say working parents should receive a before (school) care and after-care for their minor children? Where does it say to parents we guarantee a free hot breakfast, a nutritional lunch and a take home snack for children?” Wilson said, listing examples. “Stop wasting our time and come back with a bill of rights that will help American families survive and live out the American dream.”
State laws preceded federal push
The legislation comes as a wave of Republican-sponsored parents’ bill of rights proposals are the focus of state capitals across the U.S. Many bills and laws, like Florida’s, center on restricting any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression.
The Sunshine State’s law, enacted last year and famously referred to by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten to third grade. A proposal introduced last week to expand the law would widen that timeframe from Pre-K to eighth grade and would restrict the use by school personnel of students’ “preferred pronouns.”
Louisiana’s law mandates parents’ access to examine textbooks, curricula and supplemental instructional materials, and to inspect multiple categories of their children’s school records within 10 days of requesting them, including any records of mental health counseling.
What’s in the federal Parents Bill of Rights?
The legislation passed by the U.S. House committee would add language to the federal Education and Secondary Education Act of 1965, stating that parents with children in publicly funded schools have the right to:
- Review curriculum.
- Know if a state changes educational standards.
- Review a school’s budget.
- Review a list of books and materials in the school library.
- Address the school board.
- To be informed about violent activity at the school.
- To be informed of any plans to eliminate “gifted or talented programs,” according to the bill.
- Meet with teachers twice a year.
The bill would also add language to the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to:
- Require parental consent “for the use of technology in the classroom for purposes of educating the student,” according to the bill.
- Make available to parents for inspection all instructional materials, teacher’s manuals, books and films, among other items.
- Prohibit schools from using student information for marketing and other non-educational uses.
- Require notice and consent from parents for any school medical examinations, which is defined as a screening that “involves the exposure of private body parts, or any act during such examination or screening that includes incision, insertion, or injection into the body, or a mental health or substance use disorder screening,” with the exceptions of hearing, vision or scoliosis screenings, the bill states.
Hours of debate
More than 30 amendments to the bill were offered up by committee members until nearly 2:30 a.m.
Changes proposed by Democrats included funding more teacher training; protecting educational resources about women’s, Asian American Pacific Islander, Black and Native American history; endorsing, via a nonbinding measure, school meals for low-income students; and removing new reporting requirements to the federal government.
Almost all were rejected by the GOP majority, though a Democrat-led amendment to prohibit federal involvement in the curriculum and a nonbinding measure to support broadband access received bipartisan support.
Rep. Tim Walberg, a Michigan Republican, received GOP backing for his amendment that would require parental consent for teachers to acknowledge a student’s preferred pronouns or name at the elementary or middle school levels.
“Parents have the right — no, they have the authority — to know when their children make major life changes,” Walberg said.
Democrats pushed back on the amendment, expressing concern that the requirement could “out” a student’s gender identity or expression to parents.
“I’m not questioning your intention but (I’m) just really concerned about those students who do not have supportive families and are afraid,” said Oregon Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. “I just read a story about a trans student who was outed by a teacher who said her home (went) from unsupportive to a battlefield. We can’t be doing that to trans students are already vulnerable.”
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