States Q&A

How Districts Can Navigate Tricky Questions Raised by Parents’ Rights Laws

By Caitlynn Peetz — January 09, 2024 6 min read
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A half dozen states in recent years have enacted laws that aim to give parents more authority over what and how their children are learning. Individual districts and the U.S. House of Representatives have also passed their own versions of these policies, known as parents’ bills of rights.

They vary by jurisdiction, but they often restrict instruction on race, gender, and sexuality, particularly at younger grade levels. Some require parental permission before a student can use a name or pronouns that don’t align with their sex assigned at birth. The policies can also give parents more latitude to opt their children out of lessons they deem objectionable. Some give parents the ability to inspect certain curriculum materials.

Now, as schools try to operate under the new parents’ rights paradigm, they’ve run into some confusion. In Florida, the state waffled over whether districts could still teach the full Advanced Placement Psychology course, which addresses gender identity and sexuality. In North Carolina, two districts paused a child sexual abuse prevention program this past fall as they determined whether it was allowed under the state’s new parents’ rights law. Some districts in states with parents’ rights laws have sought parents’ approval for their children to even go by common nicknames.

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People hold signs during a protest at the state house in Trenton, N.J., Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. New Jersey lawmakers are set to vote Monday on legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren, as opponents crowd the statehouse grounds with flags and banners, including some reading "My Child, My Choice."
People hold signs during a protest at the state house in Trenton, N.J., on Jan. 13, 2020, opposing legislation to eliminate most religious exemptions for vaccines for schoolchildren. In North Carolina, a bill passed to protect parents' rights in schools caused uncertainty that led two districts to pause a child sex abuse prevention program out of fear it would violate the new law.
Seth Wenig/AP
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It’s all happening in the name of parents’ rights, but they raise tricky questions about where a parent’s authority stops and a school’s authority begins. What do legal precedents on the issue actually say? And how can district leaders navigate the challenges inherent in interpreting and implementing these new laws?

While the Constitution does give parents general authority to make decisions about their children’s education, it doesn’t take all authority away from school districts, according to Derek Black, a law professor and constitutional law chair at the University of South Carolina.

Parents’ rights laws often prioritize individual needs and preferences over those of a larger group, which can make administering public education particularly difficult, Black said in an interview with Education Week.

He encouraged school districts to focus on developing trusting and collaborative relationships with parents to prevent resentment and distrust from building up.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What drives the confusion about how parents’ bill of rights laws should be implemented?

Derek Blake

That phrase “parental rights” is a very broad one, and you can easily lump a lot of stuff into it. In fact, this sort of broad concept comes from these cases back from the 1920s that they always cite that established a parental right to control the education and upbringing of one’s child. But it doesn’t give parents authority over everything a school does.

Even when people said there’s a right to abortion, it never meant abortion anywhere, any time, however, you want. There were parameters.

You can say that of all of our rights—there are always limits, but I think what has happened with parental rights is that there is this broad language from 100-year-old cases that is being wildly extrapolated in the modern context.

There are statutory rights that states have extended to parents, and that’s what some of this legislation is doing now. The thing we have to understand is, these rights that are being extended are not constitutional rights, they’re just policy rights.

These are just permissions that the state has given to parents. And now folks want more and more and again, it’s around this idea that it’s their constitutional right as parents to have these things, when that’s not really the reality.

What rights did those cases establish for parents?

The short version of it all is that those cases really stand for the idea that parents can seek educational opportunities beyond or in lieu of the public education system, and that you can’t constrict the available educational options.

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Courts have routinely rejected any number of claims by parents that [students] being required to read fantasy books, for example, is somehow contrary to religion. Courts have rejected this content being provided as being a violation of parental rights and said parents have the right to supplement and teach your kids this is wrong or whatever you want.

Schools can’t compel a child to say same-sex marriages are moral, or they can’t compel students to salute the flag. But they can expose you to the flag. So I think that’s where a lot of the confusion redounds.

It’s hard for me to imagine that the folks who are pushing this agenda are ignorant of the fact that the Constitution is relatively limited. What I would say, however, is it’s their position, I believe, that the constitutional rights of parents should be much broader. What they really are doing is envisioning a system of education in which individual interests take precedence over the group.

What challenges do districts face in interpreting and implementing these laws?

It becomes practically impossible to administer a public education that works to the greater good of all when what you’re doing is riding around trying to create 101 exemptions for everyone who doesn’t like something. Or you’re forced to throw out the education that’s good for all to just reach a lowest common denominator that will generate the fewest exemptions or complaints.

We ultimately have to trust local school districts to act in the overall interest and good. If teachers are obliged to post their teaching materials every day of the week, and then respond to any questions individual parents may have in regard to those teachings, then we get to a situation where teachers no longer have time to teach students to read, write, and do arithmetic, which is what their primary job is.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference to sign several bills related to public education and increases in teacher pay, in Miami, on May 9, 2023.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference to sign several bills related to public education and increases in teacher pay, in Miami, on May 9, 2023.
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

There’s a certain subset of people who are anti-public education and their intent is just to micromanage them to death. But I do think there’s some reasonable-minded parental rights folks who don’t want to interfere with basic educational teaching, and believe in middle ground.

Do you have any advice as schools and districts navigate these issues?

I think it’s impossible to give a broad response to that because the laws vary from state to state and some are more restrictive and unreasonable than others. If one says you must post assignments and respond to any objections on a daily basis, then that’s just a disaster, and there’s no advice for that.

Advice comes into play more in those districts and states that don’t yet have these parental rights statutes and they’re trying to navigate issues without them blowing up into something that does become law.

I’d say the key is for teachers to build trust with the parents and to communicate with parents. I don’t think they need to—or can—communicate everything. But I think the more that the schools and teachers are proactively sharing information with parents, the less likely it is for a subset to gain traction over the idea that the school is hiding something or you’re doing something terrible. A little bit of self-enforced transparency and self-enforced communication would go a long way.

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Protesters hold signs at a Moms for Liberty rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on October 9, 2021. About 100 people attended the rally to protest mask and vaccine mandates.
Protesters gather at a Moms for Liberty rally against mask and vaccine mandates at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Oct. 9, 2021.
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Ultimately, a person who’s trying to make trouble is going to do so regardless of the communication, so then I really think it’s up to strong education leaders—principals and superintendents—to be a buffer for the teachers. Teachers need to know that leaders will line up behind them.

I also think school board members need to be standing up, too, and saying, “If you don’t like this, then unelect us. But right now our job is to serve the 100 percent. But we can’t even serve the 95 percent or the 99 percent if we’re running around chasing our tails, with the 1 percenters complaining about stuff.”

So, I think that everyone except the teacher needs to step forward to create some buffers for the classroom.

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