Red states look to emulate Florida-style education bills

Republicans are preparing to roll out the legislation in sessions next year.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during an election night party Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, in McAllen, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

SAN DIEGO — Republican legislators in states across the country are rolling out plans to give parents more control over their children’s education in next year’s legislative sessions, building on initiatives at the heart of the agendas of two governors said to be contemplating runs for the White House.

The proposals, only some of which have been announced or filed with legislative services bureaus, vary widely. But most would give parents the ability to access curriculum and reading materials, and some would bar schools from enforcing policies relating to a student’s preferred pronouns.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) have both included parental rights on their pre-session list of priorities. State Sen. Brandon Creighton (R), who heads the Senate Education Committee, said he would introduce both a parental bill of rights and a similar bill for teachers.

“Parental involvement is the most significant indicator for student success, and it is time that Texas parents are empowered to play an active role in their child’s education,” Creighton said when he released his proposals. “Whether it is a safety issue on campus, or appropriate library materials, Texas parents and taxpayers deserve to know that their child’s best interest is top priority.”

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) included in his state budget recommendations a parental bill of rights that would bar schools from enforcing policies requiring the use of preferred pronouns.

“Too many school districts across the country have usurped the role of parents and decreed that they will impose new controversial, experimental social science experiments on children over the objection of parents,” Reeves said in November. “There is no place in our schools for policies that force students or teachers to refer to a child by a name or pronoun that fails to correspond with the biological sex on the child’s official record.”

Florida lawmakers have signaled they will follow up on this year’s legislation in the new term. State House Speaker Paul Renner (R) told reporters his legislators would be interested in assessing enforcement of the law DeSantis signed in March.

Lawmakers in Indiana and North Carolina also say they plan to bring up parental bills of rights in new sessions.

“Parents want to be able to have more say, they want to know what their kids are being taught,” North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore (R) said in a recent interview.

Critics of the measures say they are aimed explicitly at LGBTQ students.

“They’re called parental rights bills, but they’re really attacks on Title IX and attacks on these LGBTQ students,” said Alice O’Brien, general counsel at the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teacher’s union. “Parents have a lot of justifiable interest and want to know and should know what’s going on with their students. At the same time, students, particularly teenage students, they’re learning a lot of things they’re not talking to their parents about, and you do want schools to be a place where students feel safe.”

New proposals to give parents more authority over public school curriculum first emerged in Virginia in 2021, when Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) used anger over Covid-era lockdowns and opposition to critical race theory — something that is not actually taught in public schools — to galvanize parents.

In March of this year, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a parental rights in education measure into law that, among other provisions, prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity through third grade. The bill, which critics dubbed the “don’t say gay” law, also allows parents to decline health care services offered by schools.

This year, Republican candidates running for state office embraced many of the same themes — a potential preview of the platforms on which either Youngkin or DeSantis may base future presidential campaigns.

“Republican legislators ran on this in a number of states,” Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, said at a conference here previewing the 2023 legislative sessions ahead. “You’re going to see education committees doing a lot of discussion of the ways parents can have more control in schools.”

Parental bills of rights also passed this year in Georgia and Arizona. Versions in North Carolina, New Hampshire and Kansas all passed at least one legislative chamber before dying. Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D) vetoed her state’s version, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) vowed to veto a bill that cleared the Republican-led state Senate, though that bill died in the state House.

Still on the table is a parental bill of rights in Ohio that would require school districts to draft a policy promoting parental involvement, and to notify parents when there is a change in their students’ mental, emotional or physical health, a provision similar to the Florida law.

That bill did not advance out of committee during the final sprint to the end of the lame duck session last week. But legislators expect to revive it again in 2023 as part of a broader overhaul of state elections policies, after Republicans expanded their majorities in the midterm elections.

The measures that have already passed, and those on next year’s agenda, will face legal scrutiny. The NEA has already sued over a New Hampshire law, and other challenges are targeting bills in Florida and Oklahoma. Teacher groups plan to sue over a Georgia law, as well.

“They run squarely against not just the current administration, but also decades of decisions by the courts that Title IX protects LGBTQ students from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” the NEA’s O’Brien said. “There definitely are a number of federal court cases now pending that challenge these laws both on their face and as applied.”