WASHINGTON – House Republicans on Friday narrowly passed legislation that would fulfill a campaign promise to give parents a role in what's taught in public schools. It has little chance in the Democrat-run Senate and critics said it would propel a far-right movement that has led to book bans, restrictions aimed at transgender students and raucous school board meetings across the country.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. who made the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act a priority during the early weeks of his tenure, said Republicans were "keeping our promise, our commitment to America, that parents will have a say in their kids’ education.” The bill passed 213-208, with five Republicans — mostly members of the House Freedom Caucus — voting against it.
It would require schools to publish course studies and a list of books kept in libraries, as well as affirm parents' ability to meet with educators, speak at school board meetings and examine school budgets.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., promised that the legislation would face a “dead end.” He said it was further evidence that the House GOP had been overtaken by “hard right MAGA ideologues” — referencing former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
The bill was an early test of unity for the 222 House Republicans and their thin majority. The measure showed how the adoption of an open amendment process in the House — a concession McCarthy made to win hard-line conservatives’ support for his speakership — holds the potential to send legislation down unpredictable twists and turns.
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., successfully added amendments that would require schools to report when transgender girls join girls' athletics teams and if trans girls are allowed to use girls’ school restrooms or locker rooms. The bill would also require elementary and middle schools get parents' consent to change a child’s gender designation, pronouns or name.
Advocates for LGBTQ people said the proposal poses a threat to LGBTQ students by potentially forcing them to come out to their families, which can sometimes lead to abuse or abandonment.
“It’s part of a pattern of attempts we’re seeing where the right wing of the Republican Party is really trying to marginalize LGBTQ people,” said David Stacy, the government affairs director for Human Rights Campaign.
House Freedom Caucus members unsuccessfully tried to add provisions that called for abolishing Department of Education programs in schools and endorsed vouchers that would send public funds to private schools.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R—Kentucky, pointed to the 100-plus Republicans who supported his amendment to terminate the department's authority and said “it adds a lot of momentum.”
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and racial justice protests, conservatives’ intense focus on parental control over public school classrooms has migrated from local school board fights to Republican-held statehouses and now to the floor of the U.S. House.
“Parents want schools focused on reading, writing and math, not woke politics,” Rep. Mary Miller, R-Ill., said during earlier debate.
Public school education in the U.S. has long invited concern among some parents — usually conservative — over what children are taught. Historically, the term “parents' rights” has been used in schoolhouse debates over homeschooling, sex education and even the teaching of languages other than English.
Recently, Republicans have tapped into frustrations over remote learning and mask mandates in schools, as well as social conservatives' opposition to certain teachings on race that are broadly labeled as critical race theory, a way of thinking about America’s history through the lens of racism.
Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected as Virginia's governor in 2021 on the slogan “Parents matter" and political action committees have poured millions of dollars into school board races nationwide.
McCarthy made the bill a big part of his 2022 election pitch to voters to give Republicans a House majority. But the GOP's expectation of a sweeping victory never materialized, and even in school board races, conservative groups' goal of electing hundreds of “parents’ rights” activists largely fell short.
But McCarthy pressed ahead with the bill, making a public appeal earlier this month at an event that featured a chalkboard, schoolchildren and parents who have been on the frontlines of the cause.
When asked about the five Republican votes against the bill, McCarthy contended that “Democrats are too extreme to believe that parents should have a say” in their children's education.
Democrats said they want to foster parental involvement, but said the bill caters to a vocal minority set on controlling and politicizing classrooms. They derided it as the “Politics over Parents Act."
Attempted book bans and restrictions at school and public libraries surged to their highest number in 2022 since the American Library Association began keeping data 20 years ago, according to a new report the organization released this week.
“We’ll fight against this legislation. We’ll fight against the banning of books, fight against the bullying of children from any community, and certainly from the LGBTQ+ community,” House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries said.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore. offered alternative legislation that she argued would foster parental involvement, encourage collaboration with educators and make schools welcoming places to families, including those with LGBTQ students.
“We want parents to be involved — peacefully,” she said.
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.