Republican lawmakers are hinging their K-12 education agenda on “parents’ rights” as they settle into control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Parental rights, a key talking point for conservative candidates in the 2022 campaign season, was the through-line of a Feb. 8 Education and Workforce Committee hearing on the topic of “American education in crisis,” with conservative lawmakers accusing schools of stonewalling and silencing parents as they tried to share concerns about schooling during the pandemic.
The hearing was the first of its kind for the current committee. It offered Republicans, newly in the majority, the chance to outline their education priorities, previewing their focus on initiatives similar to those emerging in GOP-led states.
“Parents have a reason to be angry and should have every opportunity to express their concerns. Instead they were stonewalled, silenced, and intimidated,” committee Chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said. “It’s time for the education complex to understand that children belong to their parents, not the state.”
The comments shared by GOP members in the hearing are building up to a series of bills that conservative lawmakers say will empower parents, prevent “woke ideology” and “political indoctrination” in schools, and expand access to school choice—measures that mirror state-level initiatives that Republican governors and lawmakers have introduced over the last year. Chief among the priorities for House Republicans is the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act, a bill first introduced in the House and Senate last November.
Foxx said House Republicans will reintroduce the bill in the new Congress, claiming it would “protect the rights of parents to know what their children are being taught in the classroom as well as their right to be heard.” The bill is widely unpopular among Democratic lawmakers and likely won’t gain traction in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
“My Republican colleagues have decided to weaponize their newfound majority to politicize American education,” Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said during the hearing. “Proposed Republican reforms including the parents’ bill of rights are nothing more than political posturing. These proposals are nothing more than an appeal to the most radical sectors of our nation.”
But the bill reflects a growing sentiment among conservative politicians that public schools aren’t serving students.
Conservative lawmakers validate fears of ‘political indoctrination’ in schools
Throughout the hearing, conservative lawmakers bolstered their argument for a parents’ rights bill with claims that schools have violated parent trust by teaching students about sexuality and gender identity.
Virginia Gentles, director of the Education Freedom Center at the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative advocacy group, decried what she called the “K-12 cartel” agenda to prioritize “activism over academic disruption.”
“We’re faced with alarming learning loss fueled by the potent combination of COVID-era school closures and the prioritization of activism over academic instructions, pervasive discipline and mental health issues that are creating an unsafe environment for teachers and students, school systems that are determined to view parents as the enemy, and powerful teachers’ unions and education bureaucrats that reject transparency yet relentlessly demand more funding,” Gentles said.
Specifically, she claimed that schools are pushing young children to undergo gender-affirming care behind their parents’ backs and indoctrinating students with political ideologies surrounding gender. When Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., asked how many schools are “implementing woke indoctrination,” Gentles couldn’t provide a number but claimed there was substantial anecdotal evidence.
Gentles called on lawmakers to pass the parents’ bill of rights in addition to the Educational Choice for Children Act, which would provide tax credits for people who donate to organizations that offer scholarships to private schools, and the Protection of Women and Girls in Sports Act, which would prohibit schools from allowing transgender girls to participate in girls’ sports.
Democrats take aim at bills to expand school choice, limit curriculum
Democrats on the committee pushed back on claims that schools are prioritizing political activism and ideologies over basic instruction, calling state laws to limit how teachers talk about gender identity, sexuality, and race a distraction.
“Educational gag orders are a distraction and do not address the public’s concerns about the academic success and well-being of American students,” ranking member Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., said. “Many of these attacks have been launched under the guise of transparency and expanded parents’ rights.”
Democrats plan to introduce bills that would raise teacher pay, provide funding to support school building improvements, reduce racial or socioeconomic barriers in education, and prohibit discrimination based on race or nationality, Scott said. Wilson reintroduced the first of those bills on Tuesday, the American Teacher Act, which would incentivize states to raise base teacher pay to $60,000 a year.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who previously served in the House, testified in favor of initiatives to expand early-childhood education, provide career learning opportunities in high school, and make schools more inclusive of students from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds and with varying gender identities and sexualities. Polis touted Colorado programs, such as universal free preschool and state-funded high-impact tutoring.
“As leaders, we need to do what we can to strengthen our schools, create inclusive settings where all students can learn, and empower our educators, parents, and school leaders to prepare every student for success,” Polis said.