Political Notes: Report details attacks on pro-LGBTQ school policies cloaked as 'parental rights'

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday August 28, 2023
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A sign at a 2022 rally headlined by Governor Glenn Youngkin in Annandale, Virginia. Youngkin ran his 2021 gubernatorial campaign using "parental rights" rhetoric. Photo: Courtesy of Ellie Ashford/Annandale Today, via PEN America
A sign at a 2022 rally headlined by Governor Glenn Youngkin in Annandale, Virginia. Youngkin ran his 2021 gubernatorial campaign using "parental rights" rhetoric. Photo: Courtesy of Ellie Ashford/Annandale Today, via PEN America

A new report has documented in stark detail how efforts to restrict what students learn and read about in schools have been sweeping across the country over the last two years. Cloaked under the banner of "parental rights," the policies and legislative proposals are largely aimed at making it easier to put the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups back into an educational closet.

In its "Educational Intimidation: How 'Parental Rights' Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn," PEN America found that nearly 400 bills touted as advancing the rights of parents with school-age children have been introduced since 2021. As the advocacy group notes, the legislative proposals it refers to as "educational intimidation bills" are meant to empower "ideologues" when it comes to decisions on curricular and extracurricular issues and weaken the influence of teachers, librarians, and school administrators.

As the report's introduction states, "Fear is the new watchword in public education. Across the country, teachers, librarians, and school administrators are attesting to a chilled climate, in which they are more concerned with running afoul of new censorious laws than with educating their students."

While the vast majority of the bills have failed to become law, the report notes that the number of such bills that are being adopted has been growing each year. According to the advocacy group, seven such "intimidation bills" were passed in 2021 while 15 became law in 2022. As of August 17 this year, 17 of the bills had been passed.

"This rising tide of educational intimidation exposes the movement that cloaks itself in the language of 'parental rights' for what it really is: a smoke screen for efforts to suppress teaching and learning and hijack public education in America," stated Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America. "The opportunity for parents to inspect and object to school curricula is already commonly granted in public school systems, as it should be. But this spate of provisions dramatically expands these powers in ways that are designed to spur schools and educators to self-censor."

The legislative proposals, warned Friedman, "risk turning every classroom into an ideological battleground, forcing teachers out of the profession, and jeopardizing the future of millions of students."

The bills covered in the new report, released August 23, are distinct from the bills PEN America dubbed "educational gag orders" in an earlier report. Rather than outright ban what materials are used in school classrooms or stocked on library shelves, PEN America contends this other class of legislation is meant to empower lone parents, government officials, and citizens to monitor and exert control over pedagogical decisions.

It defines educational intimidation bills as ones requiring teachers to post all instructional materials on public websites to make it easier for any citizen to object, requiring teachers to police students' gender expression, and allowing parents to opt into or out of certain content, creating "a la carte" curricula. The effect of the bills in the classroom, contends PEN America, is self-censorship by educators fearful of losing their jobs and/or teaching credentials.

The report includes a compendium of the bills broken down by state. PEN America found at least 19 states have passed educational intimidation bills or adopted them via state policy.

Of the 392 bills detailed in its report, the state with the most is Missouri (30), followed by Texas (21), Oklahoma (20), South Carolina (18), Indiana (17), and Mississippi (16). Of the intimidation bills introduced in 2023, PEN America's report notes that 45% have an anti-LGBTQ+ provision, including the forced outing of students.

It found more than 80 of the bills would force teachers to monitor students' gender expression, forcibly outing students to their parents regardless whether educators believe that such a disclosure is warranted, or how it will be received. According to PEN America, outing provisions are in effect, by law or by executive order, in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Utah, Kentucky, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Virginia.

"These bills are not what they seem," stated Friedman. "They are the next phase in a yearslong campaign to incite panic and impose ideological strictures on schools. Education in a democracy must be characterized by openness and curiosity, by the freedom to read, learn, and think. These bills strike at that foundation, in novel, sometimes subtle, yet potentially irrevocable ways. Their spread should not be taken lightly."

CA bill did not pass

The report includes one bill introduced in the California Legislature in 2022 that didn't pass. It was aimed at making it easier for parents to opt their children out of sex education.

"We are very fortunate to have a state government that is really conscious of protecting our queer youth, particularly trans youth," said Ryan LaLonde, a gay father elected last year to the school board in the East Bay city of Alameda.

Set to be part of a panel discussion Monday about the state's educational codes hosted by statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization Equality California, LaLonde told the Bay Area Reporter that unlike in other states, LGBTQ students in California fortunately are protected by various state laws and provisions within the state's education code.

A point he will be making during the discussion, said LaLonde, is that "many of the protections we have for our LGBTQ youth are in our ed code and aren't going anywhere."

Yet, due to Democrats controlling the Statehouse in Sacramento, conservatives in California have increasingly turned their sights on elections for local school board seats in order to pass their parental rights agenda. This year has seen multiple school boards in the Golden State pass policies targeting LGBTQ curriculum and students, from refusing to buy books with LGBTQ lesson plans to requiring school officials to out transgender students to their parents.

"We realized no one was going to listen so we needed that voice at the table," said Sonja Shaw, president of the Chino Valley Unified School Board, which recently became the first school district in the state to adopt a parental notification policy covering transgender students. "Elected officials, the majority of them don't want to listen to our views or support us."

Shaw was among the speakers at a daylong "Parental Rights Virtual Open House" that the conservative California Policy Center held the day prior to the release of PEN America's report. Leaders of the Sacramento-based think tank said they plan to ask candidates running for election in California next year to sign a parental rights pledge. Through its Parent Union initiative, it is also helping to train like-minded parents on how to run for school board seats.

"We have to hold them accountable, otherwise, come the next election, they are out," said Cecilia "Ceci" Iglesias, the founder of the Parent Union and director of its Latino engagement who formerly served on Santa Ana's school board and city council.

To see the full report from PEN America, visit its website.

Due to the Labor Day weekend, the Political Notes column will return Monday, September 11.

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