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Controversial ‘Parent Bill of Rights’ bill moving quickly

Controversial ‘Parent Bill of Rights’ bill moving quickly

A controversial education bill making its way through the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly proposes granting parents a slate of “rights” they already have while taking more power from locally elected school boards and prohibiting instruction on a topic that doesn’t currently exist in state educational standards.

It may sound a lot like a redux of the debates surrounding critical race theory, but it’s not. The so-called “ Parents Bill of Rights” bill was filed on Jan. 31 by senators Amy Galey (R-Alamance), Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) and Lisa Barnes (R-Nash). 

“This bill is really about getting parents information, and informing them of their rights, and helping them to be able to access those rights,” Galey told The Smoky Mountain News on Feb. 6. “Over the years, as the parent of three children who went through public education, I know of multiple instances where parents felt that they were stiff-armed by the school, that schools did not really want to deal with them and did not want to give them information. When that happens, parents don’t really know what to do — what are they entitled to? Is the school even telling them the truth? This bill is an attempt to address that discrepancy.”

The bill, which covers students in grades K-4, has moved quickly through the Senate’s Education Committee, co-chaired by Galey and Lee, as well as the Health Care Committee co-chaired by Macon County Republican Sen. Kevin Corbin. 

True to its title in one way, the bill ostensibly offers to parents a series of proposed “rights” that in reality already exist. 

“I think that a lot of the proposed language in the bill, really, we already do,” said Chuck Francis, chairman of the Haywood County School Board. “We want parents to be involved in our school system. We invite parents to look over school supplies and school materials and curriculum. I think there’s a lot of options already there for parents that maybe they’re just not aware of.”

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Currently, Haywood County Schools is ranked seventh-best of 115 public school units in the entire state. Parents already have the power to act on every single one of the “rights” proposed in the Senate bill. 

Among them is the ability to request that their student skip sex education classes. 

“When we have puberty classes, parents always have the right to opt out of those,” said Dr. Jill Barker, associate superintendent for instruction and curriculum. 

The bill specifically focuses on the K-4 grade levels, but HCS does not begin puberty-related classes until fifth grade. 

In fourth grade, there is some instruction on healthy versus unhealthy relationships, however the term “relationships” is a general one in this case that isn’t limited to romantic relationships and doesn’t include discussions of sexual activity. 

Parents of HCS students can also seek a medical or religious exemption from immunization requirements, can review statewide standardized assessment results as part of the state report card and can request an evaluation of their child for an academically gifted program or for identification as a child with a disability. 

“They absolutely have that right,” said Barker. “A lot of times meetings occur before that happens, but if a parent still would like that to happen they can put that in writing. If they are tested for an academically gifted program and they don’t qualify, there is an appeal process.”

Parents can also inspect public school textbooks and other supplementary materials, which is somewhat moot given the increasingly evolving nature of classroom instruction. 

“Because our textbook funding is so minimal from the state, we really can’t afford to buy textbooks when there’s an adoption so our teachers really stick strictly with our curriculum standards,” she said. “We develop, throughout our district, research-based resources that we can use together and provide training on. We do have some textbooks, but again, it’s not like it used to be where there’s a textbook a kid carried home every day.”

An additional clause in the bill offers parents the “right” to purchase textbooks. It’s not clear why this is included in the bill, as textbooks of all sorts are commonly available for purchase online and aren’t usually sold by schools. 

Another proposed right, access to information relating to school district policies for promotion or retention, is also established in HCS policy. 

“We do send retention notification letters home to students periodically throughout the year. And of course, principals are meeting with parents,” said Barker. “We don’t want that to ever be a decision made without all parties in agreement.”

Yet another befuddling right offered in the bill is one of the most basic and longstanding policies of any school system, as terrifying as it may be for some students — the right to receive report cards on a regular basis. 

“We even have an online system called PowerSchool, where parents can be notified simultaneously when a teacher posts a grade,” she said. “If they choose to opt into that system, as soon as the teacher adds a grade, that parent can get notification of that grade,” she said. “We also send automated voicemail messages home through our Blackboard Connect system at night when students are absent from school.”

Then, there’s the right to access information relating to the state public education system, including standards, report card requirements, attendance requirements and textbook requirements. 

“All the state standards are on the Department of Public Instruction website,” said Barker. “Those are easily accessible to parents.”

The right to participate in parent-teacher organizations is already established, isn’t under threat and isn’t necessarily controlled by the schools. 

“We do have those here in Haywood County, parent organizations. Our federal programs office has a parent advisory committee and Dr. Putnam, the superintendent, has an advisory committee,” she said. “We have the superintendent’s student advisory committee, which consists of high school students.”

Barker says the right to opt out of certain data collection for their child already exists. The right of students to participate in protected student information surveys only with parental consent is also an issue HCS monitors closely. 

“That’s a big one. I mean, we actually do have people that want to conduct surveys in our schools. We are very cautious about that. Those are all approved by our superintendent. At times, they are even approved by the Board of Education. If we do deem it to be an appropriate survey, parents always have the right to opt out of those,” she said. 

Parents can also review all available records of materials their child has borrowed from a school library. 

“If a parent wanted to review or see what their child had checked out, obviously, yeah, we would do that,” Barker said. “We should have digital records of that now, all that is online. I don’t think I’ve had a parent ask for that but we would certainly be able to provide that for them if that’s something they needed to see.”

The most controversial aspect of the bill isn’t any of the proposed “rights” for parents but is rather a prohibition — on instruction about gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality in the K-4 curriculum. 

Similar to straw man arguments about critical race theory, there is no instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation in the grade levels proposed by the bill. 

“Gender identity is not in the standards for K-12, period. There’s no mention of sexuality in the state standards in K-4,” Barker said, adding that instruction about sexual activity, which occurs after fourth grade, is always abstinence-based and focuses on healthy relationships. 

Parents may not fully be aware of how they can participate productively in the education of their children, but Barker and Putnam want to foster an environment in which parents can reach out at any time. 

“If they have questions, contact us, contact our schools. I mean, we want that open door policy with our parents and that communication. That’s what we’re here for,” Barker said. “We would appreciate that more than anything.”

However, the policies of Haywood County Schools pertaining to parental involvement are just that — policies. Were the bill to become law, it would restrict the rights of another group of people, the locally elected school board that makes policy on behalf of voters. 

“I would say that it will take away some local control,” Francis said. 

Another major concern is that the bill would prohibit instruction to K-4 students on bodily autonomy and “good touch/bad touch.”

Galey says they took care to ensure that this would not be the case. 

“That’s something that we talked about when we were drafting the bill, and wanted to be sure that we did not interfere with the ability to teach little children about personal bodily autonomy, or advocating for themselves in how they did or didn’t want to be touched,” she said. “It’s my opinion that good touch/bad touch or “no-no zones,” when you’re talking to a little child, that’s just telling them this is your body and you get to say what happens to it, and people can’t touch you without your permission. That’s just sort of a basic baseline thing for anybody, it doesn’t have to be so much [about] sexual activity.”

Currently, KARE [Kids Advocacy Resource Effort] of Haywood County provides this type of instruction in all elementary schools, including Haywood Christian Academy and Shining Rock Classical Academy, in grades K-5 and at no cost to taxpayers. 

Similar to HCS, KARE’s body safety program focuses mostly on safe touch/unsafe touch and how to identify trusted adults. There is no sex ed component to KARE’s trainings. 

As of press time on Feb. 7, the bill had received a favorable recommendation from the Senate’s rules and operations committee in advance of a second reading, but it still has a long way to go if it’s to become law. 

A similar bill gained House approval in 2022, but this year, House dynamics are different. Republicans are only one vote short of being able to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes, so the bill stands a good chance not only of passage but also of withstanding Cooper’s veto, should he issue one. 

“Parents are critical to the success of our schools and their participation should be welcomed and encouraged, but the last thing we need is to force the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ culture wars on our children and our state,” said Cooper. “We know from seeing the harmful impacts of the bathroom bill how much legislation like this hurts people and costs North Carolina jobs.” 

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