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Schools Usurp Parents' Rights, Lawmakers Told

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Advocates for strengthening parents' rights took their case to Capitol Hill last week, arguing that schools are usurping the family's role as the primary teacher of values. In separate House and Senate hearings, parents complained that schools are making birth control available to their children without their consent, advocating homosexual lifestyles, and presenting questionable AIDS-awareness programs.

"My two children are being taught at home that sexual activity of any kind should be saved for marriage. Yet, there is a very different message that they get from school officials these days," Warren D. Grantham of St. Paul, Minn., told the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee's oversight subcommittee, which held a two-day hearing on parents, schools, and values.

Meanwhile, a Senate subcommittee held a hearing on a bill that would set a stricter legal standard for courts to use in considering parental-rights cases.

The proposed Parental Rights and Responsibilities Act, introduced as HR 1946 in the House and S 984 in the Senate, would bar government and school officials from interfering with "the upbringing of a child" unless a "compelling governmental interest" is involved. Its provisions, which affirm parents' freedom to direct their children's education, health care, discipline, and religious training, are similar to language proposed as an amendment to state constitutions by a Virginia-based organization called Of the People. (See stories from 3/22/95 and 5/24/95.)

Conservative Republicans also are backing another bill, the proposed Family Privacy Protection Act, HR 1271, that would require families to give written consent before researchers could ask their children certain survey questions.

Lack of Trust

Such initiatives have been fueled by a number of court cases filed by parents seeking broader control over what their children learn, how they are tested, and how they are disciplined.

"Parents need to be able to trust the schools they send their children to and need to reclaim their role of the primary teacher of values to their children," Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., argued in convening last week's House hearings.

The event featured testimony from William J. Bennett, a former secretary of education and a prominent Republican crusader for upgrading the nation's moral standards.

Gay-rights activists closely monitored the testimony. They charged that the hearing was a political payoff by GOP leaders to the Rev. Lou Sheldon, who condemns homosexuality as the chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, a national church network based in Anaheim, Calif. Mr. Hoekstra often had to ask for quiet as gay-rights supporters applauded statements from lawmakers sympathetic to their views.

Mr. Grantham, the St. Paul parent, criticized a booklet published by the Minnesota education department that has been used to train teachers to provide support groups for gay and lesbian students.

"The entirety of this publication is designed to promote that lifestyle as normal," he said.

Sandra B. Martinez, a parent from Chelmsford, Mass., complained about an AIDS-awareness assembly held at the town's high school that featured lewd behavior and language and explicit discussion of sexual techniques. Two Chelmsford families sued the school board over the program, but a federal appeals court ruled against them this fall. (See related story.)

Another Massachusetts parent, Nancy Maclone, testified that her school district made condoms available to high school and junior high students against some parents' wishes.

Both Ms. Maclone and Mr. Grantham ran unsuccessfully for their local school boards to try to combat such policies.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D.-Calif., whose son is gay, got a round of applause when she asked Mr. Grantham to consider how homosexual children feel when they are insulted.

"Two of you ran for school board and didn't win," she said. "The majority of people spoke. Why do you think your views should override the views of the majority?"

Several other lawmakers expressed reluctance to try to dictate school curriculum or school policy from Washington, but Mr. Hoekstra suggested that federally financed sex-education and health-education programs be investigated.

Researchers Concerned

The hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee's Administrative Oversight and Courts Subcommittee focused on the pending parental-rights bills.

Cathy Cleaver, the director of legal studies for the Family Research Council, a conservative, Washington-based advocacy organization, said "the need for federal legislation is becoming increasingly apparent" in the treatment families receive from schools.

She cited a case frequently mentioned by parents'-rights advocates: that of a Georgia couple who have sued a school district because a school counselor took their daughters to a health clinic to obtain condoms without their knowledge or consent.

But Sammy Quintana, the president-elect of the National School Boards Association, argued that S 984 would encourage costly litigation instead of promoting cooperation between parents and schools.

"The bill's provisions would expose school districts to lawsuits about everything from textbooks to dress codes," Mr. Quintana said.

Educators also are concerned about the bill that would require parental consent before children could participate in federally sponsored surveys that ask for private information.

Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association, contended that HR 1271's requirement for written consent would double the cost of doing survey research, burden schools, and make it difficult to follow students over a long time period.

The requirement also could skew surveys if only "good citizens" willing to discuss their habits participate, rather than the at-risk families who often are the target of policymakers.

Mr. Sroufe also said the legislation is unnecessary because federally funded research already is subject to stringent disclosure guidelines that protect individuals' privacy.

Staff Writer Jessica Portner contributed to this report.

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