Senate lawmakers introduce “Parents’ Bill of Rights” legislation

Transparency for parents in health decisions, materials, curriculum; bars certain sexual topics in K-3 which critics say “targets” LGBT youth

General Assembly - Raleigh - May 2020
N.C. General Assembly as seen from the grounds of the Capitol building. (A.P. Dillon, North State Journal)

RALEIGH — On May 24, Senate leader Berger (R-Eden) along with Education Committee Chairs Sens. Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) and Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) held a press conference to unveil a “Parents’ Bill of Rights.”

“Prior to the pandemic, we all took for granted the rights we thought parents had when it came to their child’s education,” Berger said. “When schools were shut down during the pandemic parents were able to get an up-close look at what their children were being taught. It opened their eyes in a lot of ways.”

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“Parents want to be more involved in their child’s education. This proposal strengthens the relationship between schools and parents,” said Berger. “The bill is about transparency and trust in our public schools. The more open communication school personnel have with parents about a child’s education and well-being the better.”

The bill was inserted as a preferred committee substitute, also called a PCS, to replace the language in existing House Bill 755, titled Academic Transparency.  The Senate is expected to hear committee debate on the bill on May 25.

Lawmakers said in a press statement prior to the briefing that the bill is intended to “enumerate the rights of parents to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare and mental health of their children.”

According to the bill draft and summary document obtained by North State Journal, the bill does seek to increase curriculum and materials transparency by school districts as well as notify parents regarding the mental health and physical well-being of their child.

The bill would require schools to provide parents with information related to parental involvement in schools, legal rights for their child’s education, and guides for student achievement.

Schools would also have to notify parents about their student’s physical and mental health, obtain consent for any medical treatment, as well as require age-appropriate instruction on certain topics for kids in grades K-3 and create a way for parents to address concerns over implementation of these requirements.

During the press conference, a reporter questioned the timing of the bill, linking it to the recent school shooting in Texas.

“This has nothing to do with what happened in Texas. I think it’s interesting that somebody would even try to connect the two things,” responded Berger. “This is an issue that parents all across the state have been concerned about. They’re showing up at school board meetings. They’re talking to their legislators. They are worried about things they have seen, and things that are happening in the public schools.”

What’s really in the bill

The parental rights enumerated in a new Article by the bill include a host of items including direction of the child’s education, care, upbringing, and moral or religious training, access to student records, making health care decisions for their child, access to health care records and covering attendance laws.

The new Article also includes barring the creation, sharing, or storage of biometric scans, blood, or DNA without written consent, unless authorized by a court order or for a juvenile in custody of law enforcement.

Additionally, the bill also takes a step towards addressing sexual and criminal activity involving students by requiring “prompt” notification if an employee suspects an offense has been committed against their child unless such a report impedes a criminal or child welfare investigation.

There is also language that school employees could face disciplinary action if it is found they encouraged or coerced a child to withhold information from their parents.

Under the section on physical and mental health, the bill requires parents to be notified prior to “any changes in the name or pronoun used for a student” in school records or by school personnel.

With regard to age-appropriate content for students in K-3, the Parental Rights bill’s summary states that “Instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity would not be permitted in the curriculum provided in kindergarten through third grade.”

Curriculum is defined broadly in the bill as the “standard course of study and support materials, locally developed curriculum, supplemental instruction, and textbooks and other supplementary materials.”

Media outlets questioned if that portion of the bill was similar to legislation enacted in Florida that bars the teaching of sexuality and gender identity to young children in Pre-k through third grade. Florida Democrats and media branded the legislation as the “don’t say gay bill” despite the word gay not appearing a single time in the legislation’s language.

The section dealing with age-appropriate content does have some legal teeth to offer frustrated or concerned parents. The governing board is directed to create policies and procedures for parents to notify their child’s principal of their concerns.

The procedures will include a resolution method to address parental concerns within seven days of the date the parent first notifies the school. If there is no resolution within 30 days, the school has to give a statement for why it is not complying. A parent then has the option of notifying the State Board of Education to request a parental concern hearing or the parent can turn to the courts for possible injunctive relief. In both instances the district can end up paying for the cost of a hearing officer or, it goes to the courts, attorney’s fees, and money may be paid to the parents.

Additional parent legal rights are also addressed in the proposed bill, including the ability to:

  • Make decisions for participation in reproductive health and safety education programs.
  • Seek exemptions from immunization requirements.
  • Review statewide standardized assessment results.
  • Request an evaluation of their child for identification as a child with a disability or as academically or intellectually gifted.
  • Inspect and purchase textbooks and other supplementary instructional materials.
  • Access information on promotion and retention, including high school graduation requirements
  • Receive regular report cards that show academic performance, conduct, and attendance.
  • Access information on the State public education system.
  • Participate in parent-teacher organizations.
  • Opt-out of data collection on certain types of surveys.
  • Review available records of materials their child borrowed from a school library.

With regard to parental access and notification of curriculum, textbooks, and other materials, the bill creates a timeline with a brief window for the district or school to comply and orders districts to create policies and governing boards related to parental involvement in these areas.

A principal has 10 business days to either respond or deliver the requested materials to the parent. If the request is complex, the principal can notify the parent of an extension to 20 business days in order to fulfill their request. If the request goes beyond 20 days, the parent can escalate the request to the superintendent.

If another 20 days pass and the superintendent has not complied, the request moves on to the governing board and it “must be placed on the agenda at the next meeting occurring more than 3 business days after the appeal.” The governing board’s decision will be final and not subject to any type of judicial review or action.

Ballard was asked how deep a list of materials might be and she indicated that parents should receive the materials asked for. She also noted that parents can ask for materials, there is a “turn-around time” to receive those items and the bill is an “effort for more transparency that perhaps hasn’t been taking place or has been withheld when parents have asked.”

Reactions ignore parents’ rights

“By banning age-appropriate discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity, we are sending a message to students that this is taboo or something to be feared. It is not,” Senate Democrats tweeted about the bill.

Initial statements from LGBT activist groups in North Carolina claimed the bill will “target” LGBT youth.

“The NC Senate is planning to introduce a “Parents’ Rights” bill today! A bill that will target Black, brown, trans, and queer students and teachers,” tweeted Equality NC.

Equality NC also seemed to object to schools not being able to teach children in grades K-3, some as young as 5, about “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.” The group took it a step further, claiming “This is telling our teachers in these grades they can’t share their pronouns, nor can students, and also limits books and resources on LGBT students.”

One North Carolina group, Charlotte Pride, compared the bill to a similar Florida law given the label “don’t say gay” by media and Democrats in the state, while seemingly defending the idea that a child’s sexuality should be hidden from parents.

“Charlotte Pride condemns any efforts which make our schools or communities unsafe for LGBTQ young people, parents, teachers, and school staff. North Carolina’s copycat of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law would ban discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity,” the Charlotte Pride statement said in part. “The bill would also endanger transgender and gender-nonconforming youth by requiring schools to forcibly out transgender youth to their parents.”

The N.C. Association of Educators issued a statement late in the afternoon on May 25.

“While we continue to review this bill, we already know much of what’s proposed is already codified in law, so this is nothing more than an attempt to solve a non-existent problem,” said NCAE President Tamika Walker Kelly. “Instead of working to improve school conditions and build upon positive parent and teacher relationships, this bill is designed to cast schools as places of suspicion.”

Kelly also called it “an attempt to divide parents and teachers for political gain and distract from the real issues, years of passing state budgets that fall short of adequately funding public schools.”

During the pandemic as some students were just being able to get back into the classroom, Kelly also tweeted on Mar. 3, 2021, that “Learning loss is a false construct.”

A.P. Dillon contributed to this report.