House Republicans passed a bill Friday that would guarantee parents access to information about their children’s public education, fulfilling a midterm promise the lawmakers hope will excite their base ahead of the 2024 election.
While the House passed the Parents Bill of Rights Act, despite some in the Republican conference having concerns about government overreach, it is unlikely the Democratic-controlled Senate will consider the legislation. That reality positions the legislation to serve as a message for Republicans, who believe a majority of voters agree with their position that parents don’t have enough input on what their children experience at public schools. In an October 2022 Fox News poll, 64 percent of respondents said they were concerned parents don’t have enough say over what their children are taught.
The promotion of parental rights became a politically potent call to arms for Republicans over the past three years, helping fuel high-profile political victories for Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) and Florida Gov Ron DeSantis (R). The issue first burst onto the scene in the months following the start of the coronavirus pandemic, when parents began speaking out against health measures such as masking, school closures and mandatory vaccinations.
“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,” Rep. Julia Letlow (R-La.), who wrote the legislation, said Thursday. “At the end of the day, these are our children. Not the government’s.”
As the pandemic subsided, the concerns did not — instead transitioning to widespread alarm over what schools were teaching children about race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as the suitability of books available in school libraries and classrooms. From the beginning, the divides over schooling took on partisan tones, with conservative parents more likely to object to pandemic safety measures and lessons on race while left-leaning parents supported the initiatives.
The Biden administration and congressional Democrats have worked to juxtapose what they view as the GOP’s political pageantry with Democrats’ work to provide resources to students in public schools, including coronavirus relief funds, mental health support and efforts to boost spending on public education. In an op-ed this month, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona laid out the administration’s message, writing that “some opponents of our administration are hiding behind the guise of ‘parents’ rights’ to try to defund public schools and take away critical resources in education — a strategy that will ultimately hurt our children, our communities, and our economy.”
Cardona also has sought to underscore the rhetorical contradictions of GOP lawmakers. “Some of the very politicians who claim to promote freedom,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times last week, “are banning books and censoring what students can learn.”
A spokesperson for the Education Department said in a statement that the Biden administration “is happy to work with House Republicans on the issues most important to parents,” but that the GOP’s policies are “not rooted in the reality that parents are living in.”
Statehouses nationwide have seen similar attempts to pass legislation bolstering parents’ rights. As of late 2022, at least six states had passed measures boosting parents’ ability to control their children’s education, while another 16 had proposed such laws, according to a 2022 Washington Post analysis.
Conservative pundits and politicians have capitalized on the swelling parental discontent, passing at least 64 laws across 25 states that restrict what children can learn and do at school, per the Post analysis. The legislative push is continuing into this year. In Florida, the legislature’s GOP majority is poised to pass a raft of laws that would ban gender studies at the college level, limit the use of transgender pronouns in K-12 schools and extend a ban on teaching about gender and sexuality from third up to eighth grade.
While the House bill does not directly mention banning anything regarding race, racism, sexuality or gender identity, it remains an implicit argument for Republicans. Rep. Burgess Owens (Utah), who sits on the Education and Workforce Committee and is one of four Black Republicans in the House, argued that parents, “not teachers, not unions, not bureaucrats,” must direct their child’s education because if they are taught not “to believe and understand our country is the greatest place in the history of mankind,” the lack of allegiance could become a “national security issue.”
“If they do not believe that, we all are at risk,” Owens said at the Tuesday roundtable.
The National Parents Union — which launched in January 2020 and tends to lean left — held a rally Thursday outside the U.S. Capitol to denounce the legislation. The union partnered with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) in early March to introduce a competing law called the “Bill of Rights for Students and Parents.” It calls for the “adoption of educational materials … that are historically accurate [and] reflect the powerful diversity of the Nation,” as well as the adoption of school policies that “eliminate discrimination and make elementary and secondary schools safer, more inclusive and more supportive for all students.”
Keri Rodrigues, president of the National Parents Union, derided the GOP’s bill. “Republicans are making a mockery out of parents’ rights and parent voice,” she said.
The Republican bill also would mandate that school administrators inform parents if a teacher addresses a child by different pronouns or complies with changing “the child’s sex-based accommodations, including locker rooms or bathrooms.” Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) introduced amendments that would go further by requiring schools to alert parents if their child’s school allows a transgender person to use a women’s restroom or participate in girls sports, a change that Democrats have decried. Those amendments were approved by voice vote Thursday night.
“This Republican bill is asking the government to force the outing of LGBT people before they are ready,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said during floor debate Thursday.
Another galvanizing factor for Republicans stems from a one-page memo released by Attorney General Merrick Garland in October 2021 that called on the FBI and federal prosecutors to meet with local law enforcement agencies to set up “dedicated lines of communication” due to a “disturbing spike” in threats directed at public school officials.
While the memo focused on “violence, threats of violence, and other forms of intimidation and harassment,” GOP lawmakers have falsely claimed that the Justice Department was cracking down on parents simply for protesting at local school board meetings. In response, the legislation gives parents the right to protest at school board meetings and requires teachers meet with parents at least twice a year to discuss concerns.
Republicans have also amplified Garland’s memo as a small example of a broader problem: that the government is being weaponized against the American people, particularly conservatives. Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) linked the Manhattan district attorney’s possible indictment of former president Donald Trump to the concerns Emmer has heard from parents in his district who are afraid to speak up at school board meetings because of possible retribution.
“This is anybody, anywhere,” he said.
But the argument that the government is intervening more frequently in Americans’ lives is why some Republicans privately have concerns over the bill.
According to numerous House GOP aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private concerns ruminating within the conference, several lawmakers have concerns tied to their belief in federalism. The legislation gives direction to local education institutions through the Education Department, which some Republicans believe should be abolished.
“It is inconsistent to want the Department of Education to have less power and for Washington to have less of a role in curriculum — it’s contrary to that perspective to support this legislation,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who voted against the bill.
During a House Rules Committee hearing on the bill Wednesday, Democrats argued that the law is redundant, noting that schools can willingly follow such guidelines without government mandates.
Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) pushed back on the assertion, saying Republicans are building on existing law “to make it really, really clear that parents have rights and that’s very important.”
Democrats countered that if Republicans want to expand existing laws, they are going against their own arguments to deplete or dissolve the Education Department.
“The retort that we’ve often heard from the other side of the aisle is that the federal government should have no role in enforcing any rules, any regulations as it relates to local school districts, and now, it seems to me, that you’re making the opposite argument,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) said.
Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, admitted the bill was not his “favorite course of action” to address this issue because it would tell school boards what to enforce. But he justified his support by noting that public schools are federally funded through taxpayer money, thus allowing parents to have a say.
Pressed on whether the Parents Bill of Rights is an anathema to conservatives, Emmer said, “It depends.”
“There’s case law that shows that parenting is a constitutional right. So I don’t think it is,” he said. “All you’re doing is saying to these local school districts is, you got to give parents the right to parent.”
Liz Goodwin and Scott Clements contributed to this report.