Image design by Vinicius Tavares for DWF

This piece was originally published on Divided We Fall, which AllSides rates as mixed. It was written by Sen. Graig Meyer, State Senator, North Carolina, and Ethan Demme, Board of Supervisors, East Lampeter Township, PA.

The Bond of Trust Between Student and Teacher Must Not Be Broken

By Sen. Graig Meyer – State Senator, North Carolina

When parents already have broad rights in their child’s education, it is important to consider why additional parents’ rights bills are being introduced across the country. Although these legislative efforts differ in approach, they are consistent in restricting schools’ instruction about LGBTQ+ people and requiring schools to inform parents if a student questions their gender. Thus, they are commonly referred to as “Don’t Say Gay” bills. 

My view on these bills is formed equally by my experience as a school social worker and parent of six. I think back on my oldest daughter navigating adolescence years ago. I often felt like a failure as a parent and as a social worker because there were times I had to depend on others to help her. Yet, as parents, we must trust other adults as our kids get older. We trust the bus driver to deliver our kids to school safely. We trust the coach to teach them important life lessons. And sometimes, when our kids don’t turn to us, we must trust educational professionals to care for them. 

The Effect Of Parents Bill Of Rights On Students And Teachers

When I was working in schools and kids told me something in confidence—that they were gay, pregnant, in a gang, addicted to something, or whatever it might have been—the truth was that they almost always did want to tell their parents. They wanted to be loved by their parents. They just couldn’t figure out how to communicate with them. Unfortunately, there were occasions when students begged me not to tell their parents out of fear of being beaten or ostracized.

What should I do if a law compels me to tell their parents, but I have an ethical duty to protect the child from harm? I would choose to protect the safety of that child over compliance with a harmful and unnecessary law.

Imagine an elementary school classroom filled with kids who are bursting with curiosity. Under the proposed North Carolina Parents Bill of Rights, that wide-eyed wonderment would be muted. This bill would restrict teachers’ ability to discuss concepts of gender identity or sexuality, although they could answer questions that students ask. What happens when one student’s question leads to a slew of questions from others? A good teacher responds to these inquiring minds by reading aloud from an age-appropriate book. Yet, that teaching moment would also be prohibited under this bill.

Students And Teachers Need More Support, Not Less

These bills come amid the worst adolescent mental health crisis we’ve ever seen. Based on a recent North Carolina Department of Public Instruction survey of high school students: 49% say they feel good about themselves; 33% said they feel alone; and 49% of students who identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual have seriously considered committing suicide. Enacting the parents bill of rights into law will lead to fewer students receiving the care and support they need from school professionals.

The restrictions in these bills are also driving educators from the profession. In North Carolina, teachers are leaving in alarming numbers: Nearly 16% quit after last year. One Charlotte history teacher cited the “politics of education” as the reason for her departure, “I taught AP language where we were supposed to teach very controversial work… I taught all sorts of philosophers and speakers. I could only imagine how I would be targeted for continuing to teach this.”

Instead of passing bills that might endanger kids and hinder teachers, states should provide resources to help children in need. That’s why I sponsored Senate Bill 74, which would ensure students’ freedom. In the learning environment created by this bill, children would have teachers who support their individual needs, extracurricular activities, affordable and nutritious food, mental health support, and more.

Schools should be places where we help every child thrive—from a transgender kid to one who is truant. Legislatures should fund social workers, counselors, nurses, and other professionals who are the liaisons between home and school. With this financial support, we—communities of parents and teachers alike—can work together to guide our kids through difficult days and winding paths.

Protecting Children by Empowering Parents

By Ethan Demme – Board of Supervisors, East Lampeter Township, PA

The liberty of parents to direct their children’s upbringing, education, and care is under attack in the United States. The best remedies to protect this fundamental right are to amend the Constitution or to enshrine it in law through a Parents Bill of Rights.

On June 5, 2000, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for a bipartisan majority in the case of Troxel v. Granville, observed that “the liberty interest at issue in this case—the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children—is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized by this Court.”

Despite this decision, there continue to be legislative and judicial attacks on parental rights from all corners of our government. Without clear constitutional protection, the onus must be on legislative bodies. They must instruct judicial branches that any attempt to interfere with the fundamental right of parents to direct their children’s upbringing, education, and care will be met with the strictest scrutiny.

The Current Parents Bill of Rights Needs Amendment

Like every one-size-fits-all approach, the proposed federal Parents Bill of Rights Act (H.R. 5) may ultimately undermine its purpose due to political overreach. While the concept of parental rights is generally supported, critics of this measure rightly take issue with how it overwrites and preempts existing state and local laws.

One of the amendments H.R. 5 made to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 states that “parents have a fundamental right, protected by the U.S. Constitution, to direct the education of their children, and the strict scrutiny test used by courts to evaluate cases concerning fundamental rights is the correct standard of review for government actions that interfere with the right of parents to educate their children.” This amendment alone would be an excellent way to defend parental rights. Unfortunately, it was combined with the kitchen sink of partisan issues that go beyond fundamental parental rights and dictate specific remedies and actions to public schools.

There is a crucial difference between enumerating specific parental rights to public schools and providing guidance to the judicial system on interpreting administrative rules and statutes. The first is political overreach, while the latter is prudent governing.

As if to illustrate this point, the federal Parents Bill of Rights Act language follows various state-level bills that have failed due to a laundry list of specific rights without clear enforcement mechanisms, which undercuts support from a range of stakeholders. In recent years, expansive parental rights bills have failed in states such as Virginia and New Hampshire. Conversely, focused parental rights bills passed with bipartisan backing in Michigan (1996), Virginia (2013), Arizona (2018), Georgia (2021), and Florida (2021). In these instances, support came from a variety of interested parties, including parents, community leaders, and educational administrators.

In Defense of Pluralism

Politicians in this country have sought to exert specific control over how parents should raise their children since the 1600s in colonial Massachusetts. To this day, two viewpoints remain on parental rights: puritanical and pluralistic. 

The puritanical position seeks to dictate how parents can and cannot raise their children and threatens removal when a parent doesn’t comply with those dictates. On the other hand, the pluralistic view recognizes fundamental parental rights and views diverse perspectives and child-rearing decisions as a benefit to society. Interestingly, the puritanical position is not relegated to only one side of the political aisle. Different states are attempting to expand their definitions of child abuse to appeal to the perceived popular opinion of their voters. Legislators from the far Right and far Left have opposed parental rights bills because they believe these measures may empower parents to make decisions or take actions with which they disagree.

A pluralistic approach defends parents’ right to make decisions. It empowers parents to choose different ways to teach their children. It gives parents the freedom to determine whether they want their children vaccinated. It allows them to decide if their child can walk home from school alone or play in a neighborhood park without supervision. The pluralistic view recognizes that in the debate over what is in a child’s best interest, parents are the experts, not a governmental bureaucracy.

This is why any legislative action defending parental rights should be directed toward the courts. Strict judicial scrutiny presumes a law is invalid unless the government can show that it is required to achieve a compelling state interest. This would allow the U.S. to have a system of government that ebbs and flows legislatively as it relates to specific laws and rules but still ensures compelling state interest is met.

Broad Consensus on a Parents Bill of Rights

There is a broad consensus among Americans regarding the protection of parental rights. Specifically, parents are viewed as the arbiters of their children’s education and physical and mental health. Parents can address their local school boards or school officials, view their children’s curriculum and education records, and partner with school administrators in the educational process. These rights also include notification and consultation about questions regarding a child’s health, well-being, and education. And yet, as ubiquitous as these rights seem, they are under threat by factions that seek to undermine their very nature in furtherance of one narrow worldview or another.

Our country is polarized enough without pitting parent against parent, parent against teacher, or faction against faction. Parental rights are a nonpartisan issue and should not be weaponized by any political group or party. Just as children should not be viewed as political tools to ’fire up the base,’ they should also not be considered property that eminent domain can seize or control. Republicans and Democrats should recognize that good government is all about advocating for parental rights and debating the best way to preserve them.

So, let’s put down the harsh rhetoric. Let’s talk about these fundamental issues, share our concerns, and listen to each other. Finding common ground will ultimately make our communities better places to live and raise our children.

All Students Deserve the Right to a Safe, Fair Classroom Environment

By Sen. Graig Meyer – State Senator, North Carolina

I share Mr. Demme’s concerns about the courts correctly interpreting any parents bill of rights. I agree that there is a high risk of overreach from potential federal legislation. I appreciate his examples of bipartisan efforts aimed at doing good rather than harm. However, I feel that his closing remarks show the bind the Right puts itself in as it pushes bills that take a deceptive approach. Some of these bills enshrine rights parents already have while slipping in new laws that undermine our educators and attack marginalized youth. 

Furthermore, he hides the anti-LGBTQ+ policies embedded in these bills by not addressing the issue. He stated, “Our country is polarized enough without pitting parent against parent,” but that’s exactly what the transphobia of this legislation does. These bills do not legislate on the merits. They legislate on fear and the “othering” of LGBTQ+ youth and their parent’s right to have people in their schools equipped to help their children. 

As Advocates for Youth put it, “H.R. 5 takes control away from parents and puts it squarely in the hands of politicians.” This legislation stokes fear. It plays on fringe conspiracy theories about what’s happening in our schools to benefit a political party. 

Here is where Mr. Demme and I can likely agree: I am sure that we both want what is best for our children. As a parent, I advocate for my children and expect my children’s educators to work with me and understand that this is a partnership, not a dictatorship. We should use legislation to benefit our students. Allowing politicians to score points with clever-sounding bills that mask their true intent only manufactures a problem rather than addresses one.

Classroom Decisions About Students Require Parental Approval

By Ethan Demme – Board of Supervisors, East Lampeter Township, PA

Activists and politicians such as Vice President Kamala Harris have expressed support for the notion that the nation’s children are our children. I must disagree. Children do not belong to the community. Despite President Biden’s belief, parents do not cede the rights and responsibilities they have to their children once they enter school. Public school educators are tasked with teaching children only when granted permission by parents. Therefore, parents have the right to know what their children are exposed to in the school’s curriculum and how they are treated.  

When schools usurp these rights, parents are often forced to take legal action. In 2020, Maryland parents filed a federal lawsuit against their county board of education. They opposed the district policy that instructs school personnel to use the gender and name identified by the student and shield this information from a parent or guardian without the student’s permission. The judge ruled against the parents. Fortunately, an internationally recognized gender identity expert weighed in after the verdict, “This Court should reverse.” Dr. Erica E. Anderson wrote, “…a gender-identity transition during childhood is a profound and difficult decision, and that parental involvement is necessary…”

The question remains: Why are school officials crafting policies that prevent parental consent or notification when experts underscore the crucial involvement of parents in their child’s life decisions? One answer could be that there is no national consensus about what public schools should teach. Without a relevant statute, parents’ rights will remain litigious. Legislatures must clarify parents’ right to access all school information about their children. 

The appropriateness of sexuality, gender, and gender identity in education is an important debate. Who better to include in this discussion than parents, the experts on their children?