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by Ariana Figueroa, Virginia Mercury

WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republicans on Friday passed a bill designed to empower parents to inspect books and other teaching materials in local public schools, but Democrats sharply criticized the measure, saying it would censor teachers and ban books.

The legislation, called the Parents Bill of Rights, passed on a 213-208 vote. It would codify federal education law to give parents and legal guardians access to school curricula, library books and other teaching materials, give parents advance notice prior to medical or mental health screenings, and mandate a standard number of parent-teacher meetings.

While Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed the bill will not be taken up in that Democratic-controlled chamber, the parental bill of rights represents a top priority for Republicans in the states and in Congress.

“Sending a child to public school does not terminate parental rights at the door,” Rep. Erin Houchin, R-Ind., said.

Virginia Explained: How the state got its parents’ rights law

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., comes after a wave of recently passed state laws that center on restricting classroom discussion or lessons dealing with sexual orientation, gender identity and race. While Florida passed a “Don’t Say Gay” bill that has drawn national attention, bills with similar aims failed to clear Virginia’s General Assembly during the last session. 

Letlow said the bill is about “one simple and fundamental principle,” which is to make sure that parents “always have a seat at the table when it comes to their child’s education.”

“You have a right to get the basic information about your children’s education. … The Parents Bill of Rights is an important step towards protecting children and dramatically strengthening the rights of parents,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said on the House floor.  

GOP Opponents

Five Republicans voted against the bill: Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Ken Buck of Colorado, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Mike Lawler of New York. Ten Democrats did not vote. 

Democrats argued many of the requirements in the measure are already in place at public schools. For example, parents already have access to a school’s budget and are allowed to speak at public school board meetings.

“This bill does not give parents any more rights than they already have,” Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Penn., said. 

The top Democrat on the Education and Workforce Committee, Bobby Scott of Virginia, said the legislation is meant “to score political points and scare parents into thinking that schools do not have their best interests at heart.”

Schumer, the U.S. Senate leader, called the bill “Orwellian to the core” and said it “will not see the light of day here in the Senate.”

The Biden administration said in a statement that it does not support the bill “in its current form because the bill does not actually help parents support their children at school.”

Book Bans

Most of the debate was on whether the bill would lead to more bans on books, particularly books about the LGBTQ+ community and people of color. Thousands of books from LGBTQ+ authors and authors of color, or stories that feature LGBTQ+ and characters of color, have been banned in schools.

H.R. 5  threatens to open the floodgates to book bans, more restrictions on what can be said in the classroom, and attempts to rewrite history and censor facts, all at the expense of our students,” Scanlon said. “While it sounds benign, this bill will be used to eliminate classroom conversations about racism and the American story or portrayals of LGBTQ people in books.”

Republicans pushed back on that criticism. Education and Workforce Committee Chair Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., said that there is nothing in the bill that bans books.

Read more about these issues in Virginia from the Virginia Mercury: General Assembly poised to take up array of parental rights billsBill increasing parental oversight of school library materials clears House but faces tough SenateDemocratic-led panel kills ‘parental rights’ bills on school books, gender identity

But many Republicans used books about the LGBTQ+ community as examples of books that should not be allowed in schools.

“Parents, is this something you want your children to read?” Rep. Ralph Norman, Republican of South Carolina, asked after he listed several books as an example, all ones that center LGBTQ+ stories such as “This Book Is Gay,” and “Juliet Takes a Breath.”

The top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, said the bill is going to be “weaponized by far right groups,” which he argued is already happening with the banning of thousands of books across the country.

“It’s going to force teachers to decide between staying silent and teaching something that certain politicians in their state don’t like,” he said. “It’s already happening, for God’s sake.”

During the markup of the bill in early March, which lasted more than 16 hours, Democrats on the House Education and Workforce Committee argued that the bill creates a burden of reporting requirements on schools, diverts resources and personnel away from families and “opens the door to dictate what students can and cannot read or learn.” 

One of the amendments on the House floor introduced by Rep. Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y., stated that nothing in the bill “shall be construed as authorizing or granting parents the right or ability to deny any student who is not their child from accessing any books or other reading materials that are otherwise available in the library of their child’s school.”

Scott of Virginia said that Democrats agree with the amendment, but the nature of the amendment “exposes a problem with the underlying bill,” which he said shows the bill bans books.

“You should not be able to ban books for other children or other parents’ children,” Scott said.

The amendment passed on a voice vote.

Transgender Students

Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., introduced two amendments to the bill specifically aimed at transgender students. One amendment would require that parents be notified if a public school allows a transgender student to compete in an “athletic program or activity that is designated for women or girls.”

“Women’s sports are under attack,” she said, adding that she is a sponsor of H.R. 734, which bans transgender girls from competing in school sports consistent with their gender identity.

That bill passed out of the House Education and Workforce Committee in early March and would amend Title IX to require student athletes to compete in sports in accordance with “a person’s reproductive biology and genetics at birth,” with the bill’s language specifically targeting transgender girls.

Another amendment by Boebert would require parents to be notified if a public school allows a transgender student to use the bathroom that aligns with their gender. 

Scott pushed back and said Republicans should stop “disparaging trans youth.”

“I don’t think we need a federal law to tell students which bathroom to use,” Scott said.

Both amendments were accepted by a voice vote.

The amendments specifically tailored toward transgender students are part of a national campaign by Republican lawmakers and conservative groups in the states to restrict the rights of people in the LGBTQ community, particularly transgender youth.

What’s In The Bill?

The legislation passed by the U.S. House would add language to the federal Education and Secondary Education Act of 1965, stating that parents or legal guardians who have children in publicly funded schools have the right to:Review curriculumKnow if a state changes educational standardsReview a school’s budgetReview a list of books and materials in the school libraryAddress the school boardBe informed about violent activity at the schoolBe informed of any plans to eliminate “gifted or talented programs”Meet with teachers twice a year

The bill would also add language to the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to:Require parental consent “for the use of technology in the classroom for purposes of educating the student”Make available to parents for inspection all instructional materials, teacher’s manuals, books and films, among other itemsProhibit schools from using student information for marketing and other non-educational usesRequire notice and consent from parents for any school medical examinations, which is defined as a screening that “involves the exposure of private body parts, or any act during such examination or screening that includes incision, insertion, or injection into the body, or a mental health or substance use disorder screening,” with the exceptions of hearing, vision or scoliosis screenings.

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