By Terrence Wilson, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2022 •
All families should be a part of building excellent and equitable schools regardless of racial or ethnic background or level of economic resources. Instead of prioritizing or investing in authentic family engagement with families, politicians across the U.S South are passing new legislation aimed at appeasing a small set of parents, backed by well-funded interests, who object to school lessons that discuss racism, marginalization or oppression. As a result, education leaders are faced with limiting important lessons under the guise of responding to “parent rights.”
However, these efforts do not serve the rights of parents and families, particularly of those who have been historically underserved by education and other systems across the U.S. South. In fact, according to a recent nationwide poll, nearly half of the parents of Black students want more teaching and understanding of racism and slavery in their students’ schools, not less (Houston, et al., 2022). As described in IDRA’s model, authentic family leadership should serve as the foundation for asserting the right that all families have to excellent and equitable educational opportunities (2022).
Misleading “Parents’ Bill of Rights” Legislation Proliferates
Parents have traditionally had the right to make decisions for their children’s learning. For example, a 2013 Virginia law codified the common understanding of parent rights by stating that parents have the “fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education and care of the parent’s child” (Va. Code §1-240.1, Added by Acts 2013 c. 678, § 1, eff. July 1, 2013). Similarly in Texas since 1995, parents have had the “right to make decisions concerning the child’s education” (Sec. 151.001. Added Acts 2005, 79th Leg., Ch. 924, HB 383, Sec. 1, eff. September 1, 2005).
But over the last year, several southern states have proposed and passed new legislation aimed at increasing parent control over schools, particularly to encourage parent objections to “diverse” curricula. These policies set up adversarial systems that limit access to culturally sustaining curricula and create environments where diverse student identities are marginalized.
Similar measures were introduced in 2021 in both the U.S. Senate (S 3218) and U.S. House of Representatives (HR 6056). States across the U.S. South have introduced their own versions. For example, this year, Florida passed HB 1467, which creates additional ways for parents to object to course content despite its pedagogical value or previous approval processes.
Similarly, Georgia passed a “parents’ bill of rights” that sets harsh deadlines for schools to comply with requests from parents to inspect and censor course materials (HB 1178). Politicians passed this legislation in conjunction with Georgia’s classroom censorship bill aimed at giving parents the ability to object to “divisive concepts” being taught in schools (HB 1084).
Parents and guardians already had the ability to access materials for their own students through state laws and federal laws like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
A stark example involves the services that students may receive at school. Florida passed HB 1557, which requires school districts to disclose the nature of mental, emotional or physical health supports sought by students who may need these services in confidence. It allows parents to withhold consent for health services, questionnaires and screenings that a student may seek. Violations of the provisions in this bill lead to school districts being sued and assessed damages and court fees. This bill also prohibits discussions in kindergarten through third grade classrooms about sexual orientation or gender identity and is often referred to by opponents as a “don’t say gay” bill.
Similar ideas have been introduced but not yet passed in Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. These proposals will undoubtedly pit parents directly against other parents, students and school leaders who value diverse, inclusive curricula. Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced a plan to encourage passage of an exclusionary parent “rights” constitutional amendment.
Policies Should Support All Learners
Instead of policies for a few parents at the expense of other parents, students and educators, IDRA envisions policies that involve parents in leadership activities that promote inclusion and understanding rather than division and marginalization.
Instead of policies that limit discussions about racism, sexism and other methods of marginalization, policies should encourage parents and caregivers to lead in their own role as their children’s teachers and to share how they have combatted marginalization from their own experiences.
Instead of policies that ban students from having conversations about race and marginalization, policies should encourage parents and caregivers to lead as resources to learning to ensure that students receive the information that they need to feel supported in school.
Instead of policies that encourage small groups of parents to dictate the curriculum for every other student, policies should encourage parents and caregivers to lead as collaborative decision makers who can work with educators and other parents to ensure that all students get what they need from the curriculum.
Finally, instead of systems that encourage only certain parents to be involved, policies should encourage parents and caregivers to be leaders and trainers of other families to increase collective action for the benefit of all students.
Authentic family leadership serves as a much stronger foundation for positive school action than this new ploy to use parent rights measures to attack diversity. Authentic family leadership rather brings education stakeholders together to ensure the rights of all parties to excellent, equitable schools.
Dimarco, B. (June 6, 2022). Legislative Tracker: Parent-Rights Bills in the States. FutureEd, McCourt School of Public Policy, Georgetown University.
Houston, D., Peterson, P., & West, M. (2022). Parental Anxieties over Student Learning Dissipate as Schools Relax Anti-Covid Measures. Education Next Survey of Public Opinion 2022.
IDRA. (January 20, 2022). Families Must be Centered in Education Policymaking, Not Used as Puppets – IDRA Statement, Knowledge is Power.
IDRA. (2022). IDRA Parent Leadership in Education Model – Infographic. IDRA.
Terrence Wilson, J.D., is IDRA’s regional policy and community engagement director. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at email@example.com.
[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]