WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Friday narrowly passed legislation to press a midterm campaign promise to give parents greater say in what's taught in public schools even as critics complained the “parents’ rights” bill would fuel a far-right movement that's resulted in book bans, restrictions aimed at transgender students and raucous school board meetings across the country.
Speaker Kevin McCarthy has made the bill, labeled the Parents’ Bill of Rights Act, a top priority during the early weeks of his tenure atop the House. It was an early test of unity for the chamber’s 222 Republicans, who have a thin majority and showed how the adoption of an open amendment process in the House — a concession McCarthy made to win hardline 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.
House Freedom Caucus members unsuccessfully tried to add provisions that would have called to abolish the Department of Education and endorsed vouchers that would send public funds to private schools.
Ultimately, the bill has little chance in the Democratic-held 100-seat Senate, where it would need 60 votes to pass. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised it faced a “dead end” in his chamber and skewered it as evidence that the House GOP has been overtaken by “hard right MAGA ideologues” — referencing former President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
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, an Illinois Republican, said during House debate Thursday.
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. Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, won election in 2021 on the slogan “Parents matter," and other political action committees poured millions of dollars into school board races nationwide.
McCarthy, made the "parents' bill of rights” a plank in his midterm 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 as a priority, 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.
McCarthy chose the bill's number, H.R. 5, because children enter kindergarten at age 5, and the legislation is built on five pillars: parents' right to examine curricula and school library books, meet with educators at least twice each school year, review school budgets and spending, be notified of violent events in their child’s school and have elementary and middle schools get their consent to change a child's gender designation, pronouns or name.
"It’s about every parent, mom and dad, but most importantly about the students in America,” McCarthy said at the introduction event.
Democrats like Oregon's Rep. Suzanne Bonamici labeled the bill as the “Politics over Parents Act," arguing it would seed enmity between parents and educators and empower conservative activists who want to weed out books that delve into teachings on race and sexuality. Bonamici 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,” Bonamici said.
Democrats also raised alarm that the bill as written would force schools to out LGBTQ students to their families, which can sometimes lead to abuse or abandonment.
“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.
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.
The bill's supporters described it as common-sense legislation to foster opportunities for schoolchildren by encouraging parents to have greater input into what their children learn in school. They also insisted it does not ban any books, even though conservative activists have used similar legislation from state legislatures to press school boards to remove books that teach about the country's racist history or LGBTQ sexuality.
Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx said, “Our bill is meant to give parents their God-given rights to be involved with their children's education.”
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking contributed reporting.