Senate poised to pass GOP ‘Parents Bill of Rights’

By: - March 3, 2022 7:07 am

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka speaks during a press conference on Jun 2, 2021. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

The Senate is poised to pass a slate of bills Thursday that supporters say will strengthen parents’ influence in their children’s education and opponents argue is unnecessary and potentially harmful to LGBTQ youth.

Senate Republicans have made the proposed “Parents Bill of Rights” a priority this session, joining conservatives in more than a dozen states pushing to increase parents’ access to classroom materials — often to keep watch for topics related to race, gender and sexuality.

In Minnesota, the GOP has pitched the package of bills — which govern curriculum access, teachers’ duties to share student information and public comment at school board meetings — as common-sense legislation aimed at increasing transparency and parent engagement. 

“I think the end result we will find is that every school will get better,” said Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, during a recent committee hearing. “They’re going to be a better reflection of the families that are in the area.” Gazelka is also a candidate for governor. 

Minnesota Democrats and the teachers union oppose the bills, arguing they’d be too burdensome for teachers. They also say the bills are unneeded because Minnesota law already allows parents to review classroom materials and request alternative instruction if they object to the content.

Advocates have raised concerns about negative effects on LGBTQ students as well, citing fears that one bill could be interpreted as requiring teachers to out students to their parents — potentially creating unsafe situations for students at home.

None of the bills appropriate money to defray costs of implementing them, meaning they are unfunded mandates. 

A GOP spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from the bill authors.

The Minnesota bills are part of a wave of GOP curriculum proposals and “parents bills of rights” sweeping the country, spurred on by conservative groups such as the Manhattan Institute and Goldwater Institute, which have both published templates to be used around the country.

In Minnesota, the Senate Republicans’ Parents Bill of Rights includes:

  • Gazelka’s bill to require schools to share classroom materials with parents “without cost and immediately upon request”;
  • A bill from Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who is also running for governor, mandating that teachers post a syllabus for each class with instructional plans for the school year and update it if plans change;
  • A bill from Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, stating that parents have a “fundamental right” to “direct the upbringing, education, and care” of their children;
  • And a proposal from Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, to bar school boards from requiring testifiers to give their names and addresses during public comment.

The Senate will vote on the bills from Gazelka, Benson and Chamberlain Thursday; Eichorn’s bill was expected to appear on the agenda but will be taken up another day.

Bill authors have described the package as “straightforward” and intended to help parents get involved in local schools and increase transparency. Beyond that, however, they have shared few specifics about the logistics of implementing the bills or what prompted them to introduce the measures.

“You’re getting down in the weeds,” Chamberlain said in response to a question about details during a news conference announcing the bills.

“We’re getting a little far afield from what the bill actually does,” Eichorn said during a committee hearing, after a lawmaker asked about situations in which schools kept information about students’ well-being from parents.

When Gazelka was asked for examples of schools denying parents’ requests to see curriculum or charging them to review it, he replied, “I don’t have the exact location. It was to the tune of $9,000 to get the information because it was too expensive, or they didn’t want to give the information.”

Unlike some curriculum bills in other states that explicitly reference race, gender and sexuality in school materials — alluding to concerns over so-called “critical race theory” and acceptance of gay and trans people — the Minnesota bills don’t include language targeting any specific subjects or classes.

Still, the underlying intentions of the bills are clear based on comments from people who testified in support of them, said Erin Maye Quade, advocacy director at the nonprofit Gender Justice. Testifiers shared concerns about “critical race theory,” “pornographic” curriculum, “The 1619 Project” and teachers using trans students’ correct pronouns.

“It’s what I call the Minnesota nice version of what’s happening (in other states),” said Maye Quade, who is also a candidate for state Senate in a south metro district. “But the goal is clearly the same.”

Maye Quade said she worries Eichorn’s bill prohibiting teachers from withholding information about students’ health or well-being could discourage LGBTQ students from opening up to supportive adults at school about their sexuality for fear of being reported. The language would be difficult to enforce, she said, but even the prospect of students being outed or teachers getting in legal trouble could have a chilling effect.

“It does sound like a threat. It sounds to me like we’re trying to get people to not talk about it, not open up, not be their authentic self,” said Leah Ganzer Yoemans, a STEM teacher in Lakeville Public Schools.

Yoemans, who also works with the Bisexual Organizing Project, said she’s seen firsthand how important it is for students to feel supported at school. Studies show LGBTQ students who are bullied or feel unsafe tend to drop out of school, experience anxiety and depression and have lower academic achievement than their straight peers.

“I have a whole bunch of different rainbow stickers (on my name badge) at work,” she said. “Some students see them and are like, ‘I know what that is. I’m so happy.’ … It makes them feel safe to see that.”

Teachers have also objected to the syllabus bill, citing concerns about workload. Denise Specht, president of the teachers union Education Minnesota, said most K-12 teachers don’t plan their lessons a full year in advance. They want to get to know their students before setting a schedule, she said, and often adjust along the way based on how well students are grasping material, for example.

Plus, most teachers already provide updates about what students are learning through online parent portals and online learning platforms like Canvas or Moodle, Specht said.

“To think that there would be even more mandates put on (teachers) in an already challenging environment, it’s incredibly discouraging,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect a change in the Senate schedule.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.