Parental rights battle in Kansas schools generates book bans, scrutiny of LGBT students

Topeka – Legislators say remnants of the proposed Parents’ Rights Act affect school districts, pointing to the policies of many schools for transgender students and recent attempts to remove books from the curriculum.

Parental rights law critics say the proposal is unnecessarily restrictive.

Under the law that Governor Laura Kelly vetoed in AprilEach public school district will implement a portal where parents of K-12 students will be able to check a variety of lessons, syllabuses, books, tests and magazines, among other learning tools. Parents can object to educational materials and ban them from their children.

The Republican-controlled legislature had less than the two-thirds majority required in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to override Kelly’s veto. Now, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt has promised to sign the bill within his first 100 days in office if he wins the November gubernatorial election.

Senator Molly Baumgardner, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislation was about transparency and the benefits of school districts. As a former public school teacher, she said the legislation is in line with her previous job responsibilities, such as distributing curricula and informing parents of how grades are set.

Baumgardner said the legislation was based on feedback from parents and concerned community members following the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Is it my business? Baumgardner said. “Is it punitive? Of course not. There was no stick and no punishment. But what she did was she put in some guidelines, so that there would be consistency from the school district to the school district.”

Legislation model has been developed Based on recommendations by the Heritage Conservative Foundation in Washington, D.C., and mirrored packages have been introduced in multiple states.

Senator Cindy Holcher appears August 23, 2022, at a roundtable discussion on education at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library.  (Sherman Smith/Reflector KS)
Senator Cindy Holcher appears August 23, 2022, at a roundtable discussion on education at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. She predicts that the legislature will once again try to pass the Parental Rights Act. (Sherman Smith/Reflector KS)

Senator Cindy Holcher, D-Overland Park, an outspoken opponent of the bill, said many senators were unfamiliar with how public education worked. Of the 40 current senators, she said, only four have experience getting their children into public schools.

Holscher said the bill was unnecessary and distracted from real issues, such as the state’s teacher shortage. She said she believed that the bill would come back in some form during the next legislative session.

“The fact of the matter is that we have a great majority of extremists who have been cutting funding to our schools for many years, so it’s coming back,” Holcher said. “Those are always two things I always say about Topeka: Bad bills never die, and they can always get worse. It will come back.”

Holscher said public education would be under threat if Kelly were out of office.

“If we didn’t keep it and there were still an overwhelming majority, the house would have fallen off a cliff honestly, because the vast majority of extremists, if they had their ruler in power, would be able to shake off the foundations of our public schools. That is very worrying,” said Holscher.

In a press release dated September 16, Schmidt reiterated his commitment to passing the legislation.

“Laura Kelly and the teachers unions that fund her campaigns believe she is in charge of the schools,” Schmidt said. “They are not. Our public schools operate to the highest standard only when parents are deeply involved in the education of their children and when they work alongside a good teacher. For that reason, today I am calling on the Kansas Legislature, within my first 100 days in office, to send a Bill of Rights parents”.

Kelly has repeatedly criticized the bill, including in her veto statement, in which she said she is committed to addressing parental concerns differently.

Representative Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, said the legislation would harm education in the state in general, and would also target LGBTQ students because teachers are obligated to notify parents about their children’s consciences and other preferences. Byers has been a teacher for nearly 30 years and is the first Transgender people elected to the legislature.

“It kind of helps build that darkness around and continues to build that darkness that depression builds up on and they can’t live authentically,” Byers said. “They will not feel what the truth is, being yourself. This creates other issues. The Parental Rights Bill places an interesting burden on teachers and schools.”

Byers said Schmidt is using the legislation to win support among his peers. Schmidt also opposes critical race theory and “inappropriate content for age, gender, gender identity, discussions or syllabuses in the classroom,” he said in a post on the campaign’s website.

“I think he’s pushing it hard because he lacks direction for what his platform should be,” Byers said. And so he looks at what he considers to be the Republican Party leaders in Kansas. On education issues, it’s going to be Christy Williams, it’s going to be Renee Erickson that he’s looking forward to and they’re going to be the ones to push this on the committees involved.”

Senator Renee Erickson cheers for Republican governor candidate Derek Schmidt during a debate at the Kansas State Fair on September 10, 2022 in Hutchinson. (Sherman Smith/Reflector KS)

Senators Erickson, Richetta, and Rep. Williams, R. Augusta, supported the legislation, saying it would empower parents.

“Parents as the first and most important teacher of their children are the universally held belief,” Erickson said in the Schmidt news statement on September 16. “This is the basis of the Charter of Parental Rights. If school officials truly value transparency, they must embrace parental involvement in every aspect of their children’s education.”

Byers thinks the bill will make the state’s book ban worse. This week, the Seaman school district voted to take “Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl” out of circulation, and the assessment comes on the heels of other school book removals in Kansas. Goddard Public Schools and Derby Public Schools banned the “completely real diary of a part-time Indian” in 2021.

Goddard removed more than two dozen books from school district libraries in November 2021 before the decision was reversed, and students in the North Kansas City school district have campaigned to bring novels about sex and sexuality back to shelves.

“The Bill of Rights, if passed, would guarantee parents some sort of a right of censorship,” Byers said.

Rep. Susan Estes, R. Wichita, said the legislation was a way to address parents’ feelings about Kelly’s two-month closure of schools at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have watched their children suffer academic losses,” Estes said in a September 16 press release. They felt deserted and without a sound. The Parental Rights Document recognizes that parents are the primary decision maker in a child’s life and guarantees them a seat at the table and a full plate of information from which they can make the best decisions for their children.”

Director of Communications for the Kansas National Education AssociationMarkus Paltzell, said the governor’s election has reignited his and fellow teachers’ concerns about government overreach in education.

“What this is really about is putting more pressure on teachers to essentially sacrifice themselves on the altar of right-wing extremism,” Palzel said.

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