Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Gerardo Muñoz’s job title at Denver Public Schools. Muñoz is the manager of learning and development for the school district.
A proposed federal parents’ bill of rights aims to give parents more power over what is taught in classrooms, but teachers worry the bill would drive a wedge between schools and families.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy announced the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act to a crowd of parents and conservative lawmakers last week shortly before Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., reintroduced it into Congress with 73 GOP representatives signing on as co-sponsors.
The bill follows a growing national movement for parents’ rights policies that often call for restrictions on how teachers can talk about race, gender, and sexuality. It’s also a primary education priority for the U.S. House’s new Republican majority following last November’s elections. The bill faces longer odds for gaining traction in the Senate where Democrats have a slim majority.
The bill spells out five parent rights:
- to know what children are being taught,
- to be heard by school leaders,
- to see school budgets and spending,
- to protect their child’s privacy, and
- to keep their children safe.
“We want parents to be in power,” McCarthy, a Republican from California, said during a March 1 event to announce the bill. “That’s what we’re doing today so that you have a say in your kids’ education, not the government telling you what to do.”
While the bill appears straightforward—and even details rights parents already largely have at the local level—some teachers worry it will push parents to fear and distrust educators and drive teachers out of the profession.
The bill would “make teachers’ jobs harder by creating a narrative of teachers as shadowy bureaucrats or petty tyrants suppressing parents,” said Chris Dier, a history teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans, La., and the 2020 Louisiana Teacher of the Year. “This bill creates barriers and makes it harder for teachers to teach in an already overburdensome occupation.”
‘A red herring’
Letlow and other lawmakers supporting the bill say parents were “disheartened” by what they saw when students participated in virtual learning during the pandemic. In some cases, parents argued that schools were indoctrinating students with political agendas related to race, gender identity, and sexuality.
Proponents argue the bill would prevent parents from being left in the dark about what is being taught in schools. Most districts already give parents and families access to curriculum and books when they ask for it, teachers said.
Ben Hodge, a performing arts teacher at Central York High School in York County, Pa., said he’s always had an open relationship with parents.
“This claim of indoctrination and teachers hiding things from parents, I think it’s a little bit of a red herring,” Hodge said. “At least in my experience, teachers have always been able to be accessible to parents, and I don’t know what these parents’ rights bills will do other than give more power and pathways to things like book banning and elimination of resources.”
States with already established parents’ rights laws, such as Florida with its Parental Rights in Education Act, have opened the doors for parent groups and lawmakers to remove books about people of color, civil rights, and LGBTQ rights from school libraries.
Teachers worry that restrictions on classroom materials and how they can talk about issues like race, gender, and sexuality will have negative long-term effects on society.
“The long-term consequence is that we have a society that doesn’t know how to engage difference and doesn’t know how to be with folks who are not exactly the same as them,” said Gerardo Muñoz, manager of learning and development for Denver Public Schools and the 2021 Colorado Teacher of the Year.
Some GOP politicians have cited parents’ rights to advocate for other changes as well. Former President Donald Trump, hoping to gain traction with his 2024 bid to return to the White House, called for universal school choice and direct election of principals by parents during a speech at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference earlier this month.
Hodge views the rhetoric as part of a strategy to discredit public education.
“They’re trying to disrupt, they’re trying to discredit public education and public educators at every turn, calling us groomers and indoctrinators and all of these terrible things, to scare people into believing public education has somehow eroded and failed,” Hodge said.
‘An artificial rift’ between parents and districts
During the parents’ bill of rights announcement event last week, lawmakers in support of the bill said school boards and district leaders have silenced and villainized parents.
“For the first time ever we sat down and we saw what our children were being taught through the virtual classroom and … so many of us were disheartened with what we were viewing,” Letlow said. “So we did the right thing, right? We went to our school boards and we voiced our displeasure, but we were turned away.”
While there are certainly cases when parents struggle to have their voices heard by school and district leaders, as well as teachers at times, Dier, Hodge, and Muñoz reject the idea that most schools don’t engage with parents. And most parents trust and have confidence in their local teachers, according to PDK International’s 2022 Public Attitudes Toward Public Schools poll.
“In many ways, I think the entire premise is based on a false dichotomy. Millions of teachers are also parents and vice versa,” Dier said. “So parents and teachers, they’re not two different groups waging some battle and exchange of blows. Both groups want the best for their kids and students.”
The political narrative is “an artificial rift that is designed by politicians to score political points and move a voter base,” Dier added.
The movement pushing for the parents’ bill of rights also only caters to a small group of parents, Muñoz said. Underrepresented groups like parents of color and LGBTQ parents are left out of the conversation and ultimately would be harmed by the bill, he said.
“My father would have been excluded from this conversation because, although he did everything he could to teach us about our culture and our history, my father didn’t have any formal education,” Muñoz, who identifies as Mexican American, said. “In that way, we really relied on the schools to give us a sense of ourselves and a sense of confidence.”
Millions of teachers are also parents and vice versa. So parents and teachers, they’re not two different groups waging some battle and exchange of blows.
Teachers would like to see lawmakers focus on parent engagement
Dier, Hodge, and Muñoz don’t deny that there are problems in the school system, but the three teachers feel that the bill won’t do anything to solve challenges like declines in reading and math scores, rising student mental health challenges, and disparities in academic achievement.
“We know the steps we need to take as a society to make education better for our kids,” Dier said. “We know that we need more funding, that we need more teachers, that we need better systems and support in place, and this bill does not address any of that.”
All three teachers would like to see policymakers and district leaders focus on efforts to improve relationships between parents and teachers through parent engagement. For example, they’d like to see more pathways for parents and teachers to communicate, mental health professionals who can provide support to students and families, and community centers that offer wraparound support and gathering spaces for families.
Those strategies could help improve trust between teachers and families and give students the access to resources they need rather than pitting teachers and parents against each other, the teachers said.
“We want parents involved,” Muñoz said. “We always have, and parents know it.”