The Freedom From Religion Foundation is warning that so-called “parental rights” bills sweeping the nation have sinister intentions.
While appearing to be an innocuous way to strengthen parent involvement in schools, they are a clear attempt to dismantle trust in the public education system and to allow a minority of Christian nationalist extremists to impose their views on other parents and children.
Language in state-level “parental bill of rights” proposals usually includes a prohibition on a state entity infringing on a parent’s ability to direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health of a minor child. More specifically, these bills often make curricula available to the public. The bills also often include grievance procedures for the public, not limited to parents, to voice concerns over what children are being taught. This has led to censorship of certain curricula and the removal of books in classrooms.
Florida led the way when its Legislature passed the “Parental Rights in Education” Act last year, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay”' law, which been heavily criticized. It forbids discussion touching on sexual orientation or gender identity in K-3 grades, also prohibiting “instruction that is not age appropriate” for other grades. It’s also been condemned for essentially requiring the school to “out” LGBTQ students to parents. Florida is poised to extend the “Don’t Say Gay” bill to grades eight, which would also prohibit change of pronouns. FFRF has called attention to a number of copycat bills across the country. One of those copycat law also comes from Florida. The ridiculously named “Stop WOKE Act” restricts teaching on racial topics and diversity issues. This has led to preemptive censoring out of fear of being in violation of the law.
While Florida may have initiated this movement, it isn’t the only state where an assault on public education has taken the shape of a “parental bill of rights.” In 2022, after Florida enacted its law, 85 similar bills in 26 states were filed. Texas, Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas are among the many other states that have proposed such measures during their 2023 legislative sessions.
The U.S. House passed its own version on March 24. Although the Senate will not likely approve the bill (and President Biden will quite certainly veto it), the passage is a calculated political act. Opponents of the legislation are asserting that many of the rights protected in the bill already exist — and that it seeks to politicize classrooms and create a hostile environment for LGBTQ students.
While a federal effort to expand “parental rights” in education is thankfully doomed to fail, the attempt to stop these measures across various states is certainly much more difficult.
The uptick in these bills has galvanized some Christian nationalists to scrutinize school curricula. The real problem comes, however, when parents gain unfettered access to their child’s curriculum and start to impact the quality of education that all children receive. Objections to certain parts of a child’s curriculum often come from a parent’s flawed understanding of what is actually taking place in their child’s classroom. This view is exacerbated by a political narrative promulgated by some elected officials, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis talking about preventing schools from “using classroom instruction to sexualize their kids as young as 5 years old.” Such misleading rhetoric is intended to inflame.
The recently formed Moms for Liberty, an ultraconservative Florida-based lobbying group, has made absurd complaints, and sought to ban works about Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges, the Black child who famously integrated a public elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. Just last week, an elementary school in St. Petersburg canceled the showing of a 1998 Disney movie for children about Bridges because one parent objected it might teach children that white people hate Black people (i.e, make the white children “feel bad”). No, what will happen is that children, of any race, watching this film, will identify with what a persecuted 6-year-old went through, and come to understand why “equal protection of the laws” is part of our Constitution. Ruby Bridges’ deplorable experience is a civics lesson — and exactly what our public schools should be teaching.
In short, parental bills of rights give white Christian nationalists and religiously motivated parents a heckler’s veto over public school education.
It has long been the goal of the Religious Right to privatize education. Legislation like this strategically undermines the public education system, which is then exploited as an excuse to reroute public taxpayer dollars to promote “school choice.” Our public schools are a symbol of our democracy, and provide a chance for students to receive a secular education based on facts, not religion.
Parental “bills of rights” are really a “bill of wrongs” and must be vigorously opposed.