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House passes parental school oversight measure

Sponsors say bill responds to school administrators who shut parents out

Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La.,  said parents "have had enough" with government bureaucrats shutting them out of education decisions.
Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., said parents "have had enough" with government bureaucrats shutting them out of education decisions. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Republicans on Friday passed a bill that would mandate local school systems give parents greater oversight over education, making good on a 2022 campaign pledge by Speaker Kevin McCarthy and providing fodder for a 2024 campaign battle over public schools.

The measure, which passed by a vote of 213-208, is unlikely to be considered in the Democrat-controlled Senate. It would affirm a parent’s right to address the local school board and would require education officials to provide parents with lists of books and other curriculum materials, online budgetary information and alerts about incidents of violence at their child’s school. Schools also would have to notify parents if their child uses a different name or pronoun at school.

“This bill aims to bring more transparency and accountability to education, allowing parents to be informed,” Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., said during Thursday’s debate on the proposal, which Republicans have named the “Parents Bill of Rights.”

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen too many instances where, rather than opening their doors to welcome parents in as partners, some schools instead slammed them shut and said that government bureaucrats know what’s best for our children,” Letlow said. “Parents across this country have overwhelmingly spoken out that they have had enough.”

Democrats dismissed the proposal as a gimmick and dubbed it the “Politics Over Parents Act.” They say parents already have many of the rights stipulated by the bill.

“This legislation has nothing to do with parental involvement, parental engagement [or] parental empowerment,” Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., said Thursday. “It has everything to do with jamming the extreme Republican MAGA ideology down the throats of the children and the parents of the United States of America.”

Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said the bill would empower small groups of conservative activists to ban books they deem objectionable. 

“This bill is going to be weaponized by far-right groups and used to threaten schools with legal action if they don’t pull books off the shelves,” Neal said. “It’s going to force teachers to decide between staying silent and teaching something that certain politicians … don’t like. It’s already happening, for God’s sake. Ask the teacher in Iowa who was told that they could not teach that slavery was wrong. Ask the teacher in Texas who was told that they have to teach both … perspectives on the Holocaust.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina who chairs the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, rejected assertions that the bill would lead to book bans.

“Here’s the truth about this bill: This bill will not ban any books,” Foxx said.

Backlash to pandemic restrictions

Parental rights have become a key rallying point for the GOP in response to COVID-19 school closures and mask mandates. In Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin’s emphasis on parents’ battles with school systems was widely credited with helping him win the governor’s race in 2021, a year after President Joe Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination, signed his own version of the bill of rights last year, and other states have enacted similar provisions.

“This has all been really motivated by the COVID restrictions,” said Michael Barth Berkman, a political science professor at Penn State University. “Then the issue sort of morphed away from COVID to other issues like critical race theory, attacks on LGBTQ rights and book bannings.”

Some Republicans acknowledged conflicted feelings about the bill, which would expand the oversight responsibilities of the Department of Education, an agency conservatives have been pushing to eliminate for years.

“I don’t love going down this road,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, said Friday. Roy said education policy ought to be left to the states, “but as long as we’re going to have the federal government inserting itself … at a bare minimum, shouldn’t we ensure that parents have the ability to see what’s in the curriculum?”

The House-passed bill also has several provisions that address transgender students, including an amendment offered Thursday by Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., that would mandate that schools alert parents if a transgender girl participates in girls sports. 

The White House issued a statement saying the administration does not support the bill because it “does not actually help parents support their children,” but did not explicitly say Biden would veto it if it passed both chambers of Congress. That’s unlikely to happen, however, because Democrats control the Senate, where Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., on Thursday called the bill an example of “MAGA extremism” that would “nationalize school policy” and endanger funding for school nutrition programs.

A Department of Education spokesman said the measure does nothing to address gun violence in schools, the mental health needs of children or a host of other education-related issues. “The issues impacting our kids today require urgent and collective action from our elected officials and government — not political grandstanding,” the spokesman said in an email.

House Democrats said the bill could harm LGBTQ youth by requiring schools to report transgender students who may not be ready to disclose their gender identity to their families.

“I think what we’re seeing here today is the Republican Party’s attempt to take some of the most heinous legislation that we are seeing passed on the state level to attack our trans and LGBT [students’] … right to exist in schools,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., said Republicans are trying “to start a fake culture war targeting some of the most vulnerable kids in America.”

Foxx accused Democrats of mischaracterizing the bill to scare the public. 

“What’s been particularly disturbing for me to hear today are comments that truly misrepresent what is in the legislation before us,” she said. “This bill is not going to cause people to be mean to school children.”

GOP leaders say their bill was motivated partly by an October 2021 memo from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland regarding threats against school administrators, board of education members, teachers and staff. GOP lawmakers allege that the Biden administration targeted parents and used law enforcement to infringe on their rights.

Republican officials, including McCarthy, have repeatedly accused the administration of labeling parents who attend school board meetings as “domestic terrorists,” an allegation that The Associated Press and other fact-checkers say is unfounded.

“In Biden’s America, parents come last,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah. “The House Republican majority [is] supporting parents and fulfilling our commitment to America by making sure moms and dads have a seat at the table.”

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise said the measure signifies a win for parents against teachers’ unions.

“I am proud to stand with the parents and the kids against the union bosses,” Scalise said Friday. “We shouldn’t have to be here doing this. The unions shouldn’t be fighting this every step of the way, but … they don’t want parents to have these rights.”

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