Yes, let's do talk about 'rights' in public education

Published June 9, 2022

By Rob Schofield

American politicians have a fondness for bestowing grandiloquent titles on the legislation they sponsor. It’s not enough to describe merely and accurately what a bill does; there needs to be a catchy acronym or inspiring and propagandizing headline that will make the bill harder to vote against. Remember the U.S.A. Patriot Act (which stood for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”)?

And so it is that North Carolina Republican state legislators are advancing a proposal this spring that they’ve dubbed the “Parents’ Bill of Rights.” The bill, which as a practical matter, does precious little of substance other than to mimic some disturbing aspects of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law, was whisked through both chambers of the General Assembly in recent weeks and, sadly, could soon be on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

Its absurd underlying premise is that public schools are engaged in some sort of diabolical plot to expose children to all manner of information about LGBTQ life, and even to “groom” them to abandon heterosexuality and traditional gender identities (as if such a thing were possible), and that it’s urgent for parents to be provided with the means to intervene.

The truth, of course, is quite different.

First off, the notion that a third-grade teacher shouldn’t be allowed to explain to a child why another child happens to have two loving moms or dads when asked is absurd on its face.

But as NC Policy Watch reporters Joe Killian and Lynn Bonner explained in a story earlier today, the bill is raising numerous other alarm bells: both for educators who could be required under the bill’s vague and confusing language to “out” students to their parents, and physicians and mental health experts who fear that vulnerable kids could be subjected to all manner of inappropriate and damaging treatment if they fail to exhibit the level “masculine” or “feminine” character traits of which their parents approve.

As some have noted, North Carolina is not yet on the growing list of states to have completely banned “conversion therapy” – the destructive and discredited practice whereby parents seek to prevent children from expressing a sexual orientation or gender identity of which the parents disapprove.

If the bill were to become law, educators could easily find themselves in the situation in which they might be forced to contact parents to inform on kids who have confided in them – even if they had reason to fear this might lead to the child be removed from school and sent to some kind of destructive camp that would attempt, as some critics have described it, to “beat the gay out of them.”

The great and bitter irony of this deceptively misnamed legislation is that it comes along at the very moment at which the state’s Republican legislative majority is ignoring two genuine and vitally important education policy rights that it has denied to the state’s children for years.

Think about it: For decades now, all North Carolina schoolchildren have had a right – an actual constitutional right – to be provided with access to a sound basic education. State courts have repeatedly ruled in the longstanding Leandro case that the right exists and that the state is failing to appropriate the necessary funds to provide it.

As a result, kids across our state – particularly in lower-income counties – attend schools in crumbling facilities with inadequate staffing. To make matters more absurd, GOP lawmakers are sitting on record budget surpluses amounting to billions of dollars. All the money they need to comply with the Leandroruling is, quite literally, sitting in the bank.

Meanwhile, at a time in our country in which large numbers of innocent schoolchildren and educators continue to be murdered in their classrooms in repeated incidents perpetrated by other children armed with assault weapons – the legislature is doing nothing to address the gun violence crisis.

Instead, the same lawmakers — who are so obsessed with parental “rights” and the supposedly dire threat that someone might discuss LGBTQ people as fully-fledged human beings — continue to block the passage of simple and modest anti-gun violence laws that the public overwhelmingly supports.

Rather than join the lengthy list of other civilized nations in which possessing a gun is treated, at the very least, with the same seriousness as owning and driving a car, our Republican lawmakers and their allies in the gun lobby continue to make it easy for high schoolers to purchase and use military-grade killing machines.

The bottom line: It’s true that a catchy moniker can sometimes help a legislative proposal to attract support and scare off potential opposition. Perhaps it will work for North Carolina Republicans in this case. But by initiating and inviting a discussion of rights in public education, the sponsors of the bill are skating on some very thin ice indeed.