Parents want more say in how schools run. Do emerging bills ignore the real crisis?

A House bill that may face a vote this week calls for public schools to give parents full access to all school curriculum, be transparent about school spending and provide information about violent activities at school.

Current language in the Republican proposal mimics some state-level parents' rights laws already in effect or under consideration.

A new Florida law, for instance, meant to protect parents' rights, bans educators from teaching young students about sexual orientation or gender identity, and lawmakers are aiming to expand it this year. A proposal in North Carolina would allow parents to review course materials, withhold consent for participation in reproductive and safety education programs and be informed if their kids ask to go by a different name or use a different pronoun. A Texas proposal would require schools to tell parents about school choice options and give parents the option to decide if their child should repeat a grade or a course.

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Some parents say the push to give them more rights excludes their biggest concerns: a curriculum that reflects their cultural identities, a diverse teacher workforce, equity in school and student safety. Others say any federal proposal is Republican party distraction from one of the most crucial issues facing students: coming back from math and reading achievement declines.

“Nowhere in this Parent Bill of Rights does it guarantee parents that their student will have access to a high quality education that prepares them for a life of opportunity,” the National Parents Union wrote in response to the U.S. House bill.

Lakisha Young, CEO and co-founder of The Oakland Reach parents group, slammed politicians for "wasting time" on an agenda-driven parents' rights bill rather than addressing a reading or math crisis that is "embarrassing." If it becomes law – which may be a long-shot – she said she doubts it would yield any significant changes for Black and Latino families where she lives.

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Another set of parents say the legislative proposals are right on target, addressing demands for more control over school curriculum, reading materials, spending and the treatment of transgender and nonbinary students, concerns that replaced earlier pandemic fights over in-person schooling, masking requirements and vaccines.

"We support the fact that there’s a response to the infringement on parental rights that we’re seeing," said Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, about the federal bill. Her group is working with several states on parental rights laws. "This should not be a partisan issue. This is a parent issue. This is a human issue. It’s one thing we all should be able to come together around."

In the long run, only a few of the federal or state proposals may become reality, and they may not lead to significant changes, but the GOP push on parents' rights could give them a leg up in the 2024 election, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

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Pro-mask wearing demonstrators stage a protest at the Cobb County School Board headquarters in Marietta, Ga., in 2021.
Pro-mask wearing demonstrators stage a protest at the Cobb County School Board headquarters in Marietta, Ga., in 2021.

What are the issues?

Parent frustration with school closures and pandemic restrictions led to a seemingly united national movement for more say in how their schools operate. But there are two strands to the ongoing parental activism movement, said Thomas Toch, an education policy expert at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy and the founding director of FutureEd.

They're the same thing: Parents want kids to learn about ongoing effects of slavery – but not critical race theory.

Before the pandemic, families of color were active in advocating for more equitable school spending, teacher quality and access to high-quality schools. Groups that have emerged since the pandemic began, such as the conservative Moms for Liberty, are waging battles on instructional materials after first  objecting to safety protocols during the pandemic that they felt were an overreach.

“And they often clash," Toch said. "Parents of color seem to want to elevate people of color in the curriculum, while folks on the conservative side of the equation want to ban it."

But research shows that when there are trusting relationships among adults – parents or caregivers, teachers, and school leaders – students perform better, notes Rebecca Winthrop, a senior fellow and director of the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, in a recent commentary.

"In one rigorous 10-year study across hundreds of schools in the U.S, parent-school relationships that were characterized by respect, personal regard, integrity, and competence were one of the key drivers of improving academic outcomes and student well-being," she wrote. "Schools with low levels of relational trust went nowhere, making virtually no improvements in student learning across the decade it was studied."

She suggested improving family-school relationships by starting with an ask that parents "put down their weapons and show up to the discussion with schools ready to engage constructively." More teacher training institutions need to teach prospective educators about ways to partner effectively with parents, Winthrop said. Additional funding for the federal Education Department’s Statewide Family Engagement Centers would also help.

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What are the federal proposals?

Parents and schools working together more effectively was the motivation behind the Parents Bill of Rights, H.R. 5, said its sponsor Rep. Julia Letlow, R-Louisiana.

“As a mom of two and a former educator, I believe for a child to succeed, they need families and schools to work together as partners throughout the learning process,” Letlow said.

Her bill would give parents the right to know what's being taught in schools (including reviewing reading materials), see school budgets, receive updates about violent activities at schools and have their child's privacy protected.

Democrats saw it differently. A federal resolution meant to counter Letlow’s bill calls for public schools to consider the rights of other subsets of parents as well as students. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, wants her “Bill of Rights for Students and Parents” to give students rights to culturally diverse curriculum and school “environments where they can be their full selves and remain free from all forms of discrimination, including discrimination based on their actual or perceived identity.”

Bonamici’s office said she introduced the resolution “as a direct contrast to recent proposals that are unproductive, burdensome and pit parents against educators.”

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What do other parents' groups say?

  • The National PTA applauded Bonamici's resolution: “There could not be a more urgent time to promote learning environments where students feel safe, supported and ready to learn. And it is more important than ever that families and schools work together and develop strong partnerships to support students’ success academically, socially and emotionally," the group wrote.

  • William Estrada, president of the conservative-leaning Parental Rights Foundation, said public schools need to win back trust especially given recent enrollment declines and that all parents should want the rights outlined in Letlow's bill. ""We see it as a common sense approach. ... And we're pleased it doesn't mention banning any books, but it asks for transparency of the education that kids receive."

  • Young from The Oakland Reach called recent attention to conservative parents' rights insulting given parents in Oakland and elsewhere have called for more equity and better math and reading instruction for years. "It shouldn’t be surprising," she said, "that white conservative moms in Virginia are more heard than Black moms in Oakland."

Contact Kayla Jimenez at Follow her on Twitter at @kaylajjimenez.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lawmakers are pushing parent bills of rights. Do they hit the mark?