The 2023 state legislative sessions saw a notable increase in parental rights bills, many of which are closely aligned to the Parents Bill of Rights Act introduced by the U.S. House of Representatives in March of this year. If enacted, H.R. 5 will guarantee parents access to more information online, including curricula, budgets, reading lists and library books, while requiring them to be notified of student requests to change their gender-identifying pronouns (H.R. 5, Parents Bill of Rights Act). Similarly, states’ parental rights bills have been categorized as efforts to promote curriculum, school, or education transparency and limit students’ exposure to “divisive topics” like critical race theory and gender identity/orientation. Though the end results vary by state, common themes are book bans, the right to inspect and object to course syllabuses and educational materials, and mandates for school employees to use pronouns that correspond with students’ biological sex.
While there is no denying that parents have the right to be involved in decisions about their child’s education, many of these bills have broader equity implications as they prioritize the ideological preferences of some parents while eroding the rights of others and “promote the illusion that the intent is to ensure all voices will be heard equally in a school system.” (Opinion: Why education’s culture wars are only about some parents’ rights, Hechinger Report, 5/7/22). This will undoubtedly remain a key trend to monitor in the upcoming legislative season.
Critical Race Theory
“Critical Race Theory” has risen to prominence in recent debates but is frequently misunderstood, especially by those who staunchly oppose it. At its core, Critical Race Theory (CRT) is an academic framework that emerged in the legal field to examine how racial disparities and systemic racism are embedded in laws, policies, and institutions. Critics often mischaracterize CRT as teaching that individuals are inherently racist or that it promotes division based on race. In reality, CRT seeks to shed light on historical and contemporary racial injustices to foster a more equitable society.
Opponents of CRT conflate it with diversity and inclusion training, assuming it advocates for “reverse discrimination” or stifles free speech. However, CRT primarily focuses on systemic structures rather than individual blame. Misunderstandings often arise from the politicization of CRT, making it essential for accurate, nuanced discussions to separate the academic framework from political debates.
There were several measures brought in the 2023 Southern legislatures that sought both to counteract the false narrative being perpetuated about critical race theory and what it purports to cover by way of instruction and education, while others sought to further the misunderstanding of the theory and its purpose.
Legislation aimed at counteracting prohibitions on teaching what is believed to be the principles associated with CRT is important because it upholds academic freedom and promotes a more comprehensive understanding of the complex issues surrounding race and racism. These types of laws encourage open and informed discussions about historical and systemic inequities, fostering critical thinking and empathy among students. Requiring a social studies curriculum to include representations of cultural and racial diversity is vital to provide students with a well-rounded education that reflects the rich tapestry of human history and ensures a more inclusive, empathetic, and informed citizenry.
Several legislators across the South, though unsuccessful in their endeavors, sought to provide for an expansion of thought, inclusivity, and accuracy in the teaching of history through the following measures of legislation:
- Texas HB 4545 – Would have required that social studies include “roles and contributions of culturally and racially diverse groups, including African American, Native American, and individuals with disabilities who identify as non-binary, bisexual, and transgender”
- Kentucky HB 203 – Would have required that public middle and high school curriculum include instruction on the history of racism including the transatlantic slave trade, the American Civil War, Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, desegregation, Civil Rights and Voting Acts, redlining, and residential segregation
- Alabama SB 180 – Would have provided that social studies and history instruction shall be fact-based, historically accurate, and inclusive of the history and contributions of minority groups
Bills that sought to continue to hinder and prohibit inclusive and accurate instruction varied in their success. For example, Arkansas successfully enacted Senate Bill 294, which will now require the state department of education to review materials that “promote indoctrination like critical race theory”. Similar bills in Mississippi and Louisiana, however, did not meet the same achievement. Mississippi’s “Transparency in Education Act (MS SB 2820) would have created a parental right to review syllabuses and curricula at least seven days before the start of each semester, required parental consent for children to be taught identity and critical race theory, and permitted written complaints for violations. It was never scheduled for a hearing and died in the Senate Education Committee.
Louisiana House Resolution 13 would have required all public elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools to submit written reports of all programs and activities related to critical race theory; diversity, equity, and inclusion, or transformative emotional learning. Critics of the resolution, including the president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, considered the resolution to be a “racist instrument” and opposed being requested for justification on why resources are used for these programs. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education opposed the resolution as well, stating that it created a bureaucratic burden and provided no solid definitions for diversity, equity, and inclusion, critical race theory, or social emotional learning. When asked to define critical race theory in the committee hearing, the sponsor said that it meant “people teaching that one race is superior or inferior to another or that some people are advantaged because of the color of their skin.” The resolution was involuntarily deferred in committee by a 6-5 vote.
Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
Also prominently present in the 2023 legislative session were parental rights bills related to the gender identity and sexual orientation of children. Though varied in their success, the majority of these bills had a negative impact on the advancement of equity. Equity in these dimensions is fundamental to rectifying historical and ongoing injustices and dismantling discriminatory systems and practices, advocating for equal rights and opportunities for all, and promoting an inclusive society where all individuals are valued and respected. Below are a few examples:
- Florida HB 1069 (enacted) – Prohibits requiring school employees to use students’ preferred pronouns and sharing their preferred pronouns; prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in grades PK-8; and, requires that (1) health education include teaching abstinence and the benefits of monogamous sex, (2) schools to publish complete list of library books on their websites, and (3) schools adopt a policy stating person’s sex is an immutable biological trait and that it is false to ascribe to a person a pronoun that does not correspond to such person’s sex.
- Mississippi HB 1476 (“Families Rights and Responsibilities Act”; died in committee) – Sought to: (1) establish parental rights to review syllabuses at least 7 days before the start of each class and all class curriculum and any teacher training materials at least 3 days before the curriculum/materials are either used for instruction or presented to students; (2) permit parents to file a lawsuit for any violation of this act; and, (3) require schools provide parents 3 days written notice before providing instruction or any other presentation on human sexuality in the classroom, assembly or other official setting.
- Kentucky HB 173 (died in committee) Sought to: (1) require notifying parents if their child asks to be referred to pronouns inconsistent with their biological sex and/or changes in their gender expression; and (2) create limitations on school personnel related to instruction and discussion on sexual orientation, sexual preference, or gender expression. This bill would have also required schools to discourage, punish or disadvantage school employees that fail to use a name or identifier that was inconsistent with information included in students’ enrollment documentation.
Why This Matters
Parental rights bills are having what’s been described as a “chilling” effect on our public education system. The indirect and, in many instances, mandated censorship suppresses inclusivity and the freedom of expression and ideas, undermines educators’ expertise and professionalism, and creates divisive learning environments. In effect, “the rallying cry of ‘parents’ rights’ is being wielded to do far more than give parents their rightful voice. It is turning public schools into political battlegrounds, fracturing communities, and diverting time and energy away from teaching and learning.” (Parents Should Have a Voice in Their Kids’ Education But We’ve Gone Too Far, Time 8/20/22.)
This trend also shifts focus away from other pressing parental rights like the right to access fully resourced schools, high-quality curriculum aligned to state standards, qualified teachers, safe learning environments, and social emotional learning supports. “Us[ing] legislation and mandates to declare certain ideas off limits violates the compact underpinning public education. Parents who opt for public schools are signing up for a system designed to serve entire communities and general interests” (Id.).
Social Emotional Learning & Mental Health Support
There is an increasing need for a robust system of school-based mental and behavioral health supports, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic when students reported significantly higher instances of depression, anxiety, and psychological distress. Research proves that “students who receive social–emotional and mental and behavioral health support achieve better academically; [and that] school climate, classroom behavior, engagement in learning, and students’ sense of connectedness and well-being all improve as well.” (Comprehensive School-Based Mental and Behavioral Health Services and School Psychologist, National Association of School Psychologists) Several states took steps to provide schools additional resources to meet students’ social emotional learning needs in the 2023 legislative session. These matters, as with many others, were varied in their outcomes.
Virginia successful enacted House Bill 2187 which will require each school counselor to spend at least 80% of their staff time during normal school hours in the direct counseling of individual students or groups of students and clarifies that each school counselor may also spend up to 20% of their staff time during normal school hours on program planning and support. Other bills in Mississippi and Texas were unsuccessful. Mississippi House Bill 1227, co-sponsored by Unum Fellow Rep. Zakiya Summers, would have created the Mental Awareness Program for schools and require mental awareness and trauma-informed approaches in educator preparation programs. It passed in the House but died in the Senate Education Committee. Similarly, Texas failed to advance House Bill 4575 that would have required continuing education for school counselors regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth issues.
Why This Matters
Expanding awareness, access, and the quality of school-based mental health services is vital to students’ emotional, psychological, and social well-being and success in school and life. This continuum of supports not only promote self-awareness, resiliency, empathy, and connectedness, but also prepare students to engage in an increasingly diverse world. Education equity demands ensuring educators’ have the resources to meet all children’s unique mental health and social emotional learning needs.