WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans on Friday passed a bill designed to empower parents to inspect books and other teaching materials in local public schools, but Democrats sharply criticized the measure, saying it would censor teachers and ban books.
The legislation, called the Parents Bill of Rights, passed on a 213-208 vote. It would codify federal education law to give parents and legal guardians access to school curricula, library books and other teaching materials, give parents advance notice prior to medical or mental health screenings, and mandate a standard number of parent-teacher meetings.
While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed the bill will not be taken up in that Democratic-controlled chamber, the parental bill of rights represents a top priority for Republicans in the states and in Congress.
“Sending a child to public school does not terminate parental rights at the door,” Rep. Erin Houchin, R-Indiana, said.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Julia Letlow, R-Louisiana, comes after a wave of recently passed state laws that center on restricting classroom discussion or lessons dealing with sexual orientation, gender identity and race. Florida passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that has drawn national attention, coupled with conservative groups that have pushed for the banning of thousands of books.
Letlow said the bill is about “one simple and fundamental principle,” which is to make sure that parents “always have a seat at the table when it comes to their child’s education.”
“You have a right to get the basic information about your children’s education … the Parents Bill of Rights is an important step towards protecting children and dramatically strengthening the rights of parents,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said on the House floor.
Five Republicans voted against the bill: Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Mike Lawler of New York.
Ten Democrats did not vote.
Lawmakers considered 22 amendments on the House floor, and 12 passed. There were three amendments that Democrats were able to include, but they were all rejected. Two were from Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-California. One would amend language in the bill relating to cost and another had to do with reviews of professional development materials.
An amendment by Rep. Suzanne Marie Bonamici, D-Oregon, would have created a parental coordinator position in public schools, increase authorization levels for Full-Service Community Schools and establish rules for prohibiting the banning of books and certain curriculum. Full-Service Community Schools provide support and coordination for families and children in rural and high-poverty areas.
Lawmakers debated the bill on Thursday prior to its passage on Friday. Democrats argued that many of the requirements in the measure are already in place at public schools.
For example, parents already have access to a school’s budget and are allowed to speak at public school board meetings.
“This bill does not give parents any more rights than they already have,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pennsylvania, said.
The top Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, Bobby Scott of Virginia, said the legislation is meant “to score political points and scare parents into thinking that schools do not have their best interests at heart.”
Schumer, the U.S. Senate leader, called the bill “Orwellian to the core,” and said it “will not see the light of day here in the Senate.”
The Biden administration said in a statement that it does not support the bill “in its current form because the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school.”
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Most of the debate was on whether the bill would lead to more bans on books, particularly books about the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. Thousands of books from LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color, or stories that feature LGBTQ+ and characters of color, have been banned in schools.
“H.R. 5 threatens to open the floodgates to book bans, more restrictions on what can be said in the classroom, and attempts to rewrite history and censor facts, all at the expense of our students,” Scanlon said. “While it sounds benign, this bill will be used to eliminate classroom conversations about racism and the American story or portrayals of LGBTQ people in books.”
Republicans pushed back on that criticism. Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said that there is nothing in the bill that bans books.
But many Republicans used books about the LGBTQ+ community as examples of books that should not be allowed in schools.
“Parents, is this something you want your children to read?” Rep. Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina, asked after he listed several books as an example, all ones that center LGBTQ+ stories such as “This Book is Gay,” and “Juliet Takes A Breath.”
The top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, said the bill is going to be “weaponized by far right groups,” which he argued is already happening with the banning of thousands of books across the country.
“It’s going to force teachers to decide between staying silent and teaching something that certain politicians in their state don’t like,” he said. “It’s already happening, for God’s sake.”
During the markup of the bill in early March, which lasted more than 16 hours, Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee argued that the bill creates a burden of reporting requirements on schools, diverts resources and personnel away from families and “opens the door to dictate what students can and cannot read or learn.”
One of the amendments on the House floor introduced by Rep. Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y., stated that nothing in the bill “shall be construed as authorizing or granting parents the right or ability to deny any student who is not their child from accessing any books or other reading materials that are otherwise available in the library of their child’s school.”
Scott of Virginia said that Democrats agree with the amendment, but the nature of the amendment “exposes a problem with the underlying bill.”
Scott said that amendment showed the bill bans books.
“You should not be able to ban books for other children or other parents’ children,” Scott said.
The amendment passed on a voice vote.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colorado, introduced two amendments to the bill specifically aimed at transgender students. One amendment would require that parents are notified if a public school allows a transgender student to compete in an “athletic program or activity that is designated for women or girls.”
“Women’s sports are under attack,” she said, adding that she is a sponsor of H.R. 734, which bans transgender girls from competing in school sports consistent with their gender identity.
That bill passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee in early March and would amend Title IX to require student athletes to compete in sports in accordance with “a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth,” with the bill’s language specifically targeting transgender girls.
Another amendment by Boebert would require parents to be notified if a public school allows a transgender student to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender.
Scott pushed back and said Republicans should stop “disparaging trans youth.”
“I don’t think we need a federal law to tell students which bathroom to use,” Scott said.
Both amendments were accepted by a voice vote.
The amendments specifically tailored toward transgender students are part of a national campaign by Republican lawmakers and conservative groups in the states to restrict the rights of people in the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender youth.
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Among other amendments:
- Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, added an amendment that would require Local Education Agencies to tell parents or legal guardians how many school counselors an elementary or secondary school has. It passed by a voice vote.
- Foxx added an amendment that expresses Congress’ “support for parents’ fundamental rights to direct the education of their children and that courts should use the strict scrutiny test to evaluate laws involving those rights.” It passed by a voice vote.
- Rep. Eli Crane, R-Arizona, introduced an amendment that would allow parents to file a civil lawsuit against a public school, or individual such as a teacher, for not complying with the bill. It failed by a recorded vote of 61-365.
- Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, introduced an amendment that would require public schools to have an open enrollment period for students living within and outside the district, to allow parents to have school choice. It failed by a recorded vote of 89-338.
- Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, added an amendment that would require a Government Accountability Office report to Congress on the cost requirements of the bill for public schools. It passed by a recorded vote of 386-39.
- Rep. Mike Lawler, R-New York, added an amendment to exempt private schools from following the requirements of the bill. According to the amendment, “local educational agencies do not have the authority to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum or program of instruction of non-public elementary or secondary schools.” It passed by a voice vote.
- Rep. Mark Green, R-Tennessee, added an amendment to require public schools to notify parents in a timely manner if there is a cyberattack on the school and if their child’s information is compromised. It passed by a recorded vote of 420-5.
- Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kentucky, introduced an amendment that would end the K-12 portion of the Department of Education. It failed by a recorded vote of 161-265.
- Rep. Rich McCormick, R-Georgia, added an amendment that would allow parents to address their school board about a violation of parental rights. It passed by a voice vote.
- McCormick introduced another amendment that would require public schools to inform parents of non-curriculum-based events. It failed by a recorded vote of 107-317.
- Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, added an amendment to expand the definition of schools to include secondary career and technical schools. It passed by a voice vote.
- Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey, added an amendment that requires public schools to notify parents of any videos or records of violent activities “of which they are aware.” It passed by a voice vote.
What’s in the bill?
The legislation passed by the U.S. House would add language to the federal Education and Secondary Education Act of 1965, stating that parents, or legal guardians who have children in publicly funded schools have the right to:
- Review curriculum.
- Know if a state changes educational standards.
- Review a school’s budget.
- Review a list of books and materials in the school library.
- Address the school board.
- To be informed about violent activity at the school.
- To be informed of any plans to eliminate “gifted or talented programs,” according to the bill.
- Meet with teachers twice a year.
The bill would also add language to the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to:
- Require parental consent “for the use of technology in the classroom for purposes of educating the student,” according to the bill.
- Make available to parents for inspection all instructional materials, teacher’s manuals, books and films, among other items.
- Prohibit schools from using student information for marketing and other non-educational uses.
- Require notice and consent from parents for any school medical examinations, which is defined as a screening that “involves the exposure of private body parts, or any act during such examination or screening that includes incision, insertion, or injection into the body, or a mental health or substance use disorder screening,” with the exceptions of hearing, vision or scoliosis screenings, the bill states.
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