RALEIGH — Legislation known as the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” proposed by Republicans in the N.C. Senate would ban certain curricula around gender identity and sexuality for students in kindergarten through 4th grade, as well as require school staff to tell parents when a child wants to change their pronouns.
The bill has widespread Republican support, but Chatham County representatives and some local education advocates say the controversial bill is a “harmful distraction” meant to stoke the fires of a culture war, and further politicize public education.
The bill, Senate Bill 49, was fast-tracked through the North Carolina General Assembly after it was proposed last week by GOP leadership. S.B. 49 was passed in the N.C. Senate Tuesday night, with votes along party lines. Republicans passed the bill with a supermajority.
There are enough Republican lawmakers to override a veto by Gov. Roy Cooper in the Senate but one Democrat would need to side with the Republicans in the House to override a veto.
Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said the bill would protect elementary school-age children from what she feels are inappropriate topics, and give parents confidence that they were aware of what their children are being taught.
“Parents are not an afterthought in public education,” Galey said during a press conference last week. “Parents do not surrender their children to government schools for indoctrination opposed to the family’s values. The government is not a partner in raising our children.”
Edward Walgate, a Northwood High School science teacher and president of the Chatham County Association of Educators, said he found Galey’s rhetoric harmful — especially given the General Assembly’s track record of what he believes to be underfunding of public education.
“For anyone to say that overworked and underpaid educators are indoctrinating children is delusional and slanderous,” Walgate told the News + Record. “The use of the word ‘indoctrination’ by Sen. Amy Galey when introducing this bill, is another example of how detached these politicians are from the reality of public education.”
He said the bill was a distraction from larger issues facing public education. He cited a study from the Education Law Center published last month, which shows North Carolina ranking 48th in the nation in per pupil education funding and last in the nation in the percentage of Gross Domestic Product dedicated to education at 2.32%.
“It is time for the N.C. legislature to stop undermining public education and invest in our students,” Walgate said.
A similar bill, House Bill 755, came before the House of Representatives last session but was not voted on. At the time, Cooper said he would veto the bill, and Republicans did not have the votes to override the veto. In this session, however, Republicans are just one vote shy of override powers.
When that bill was proposed in the House, students from Chatham County Schools told the News + Record they felt threatened and targeted by the legislation. Some minor differences between S.B. 49 and last year’s H.B. 755 are that this year’s bill addresses the K-4 curriculum, instead of K-3. The Senate bill also changes language using “sexual activity” rather than “sexual orientation.” The bill also provides exceptions to providing records to parents “when a reasonably prudent person would believe that disclosure would result in the child becoming an abused juvenile or neglected juvenile.”
Despite the changes, opponents say the bill falls in line with similar so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bills, which have been passed in states such as Florida and proposed in Republican-led and swing states across the country. The bill would ban kindergarten through 4th grade curricula from including “instruction on gender identity, sexual activity or sexuality.”
Galey said she believes the bill would increase transparency for parents in their children’s education.
“It baffles me to think that this bill could be divisive,” Galey said. “I cannot understand why it would be controversial to say that children ages 5 to 9 years old should not be taught about sexuality or sexual activity in a public school classrom. That blows my mind.”
LGBTQ+ advocates, however, say S.B. 49 would cause harm and exacerbate mental health challenges among queer youth. According to Equality N.C., a nonprofit advocating for LGBTQ+ people across the state, young people questioning their sexuality or identity face disproportionate consequences of bullying and depression and attempt suicide at higher rates than their peers.
“This legislation would target educators, healthcare professionals, and LGBTQ+ youth and families for discrimination and exclusion,” the organization said in a statement.
At a state Senate committee hearing last Thursday, teachers, doctors, psychologists and mental health professionals also warned lawmakers S.B. 49 would be harmful to the mental and physical health of LGBTQ+ students. Similar concerns were raised by Walgate.
“This bill unfairly stigmatizes LGBTQ+ students because their journey will be policed and reported back to their parents,” Walgate said. “All students deserve to feel safe in our schools. They should be able to trust staff members to support them and not surveil them.”
He said he fears the bill would erode the relationship between staff and students because it would make students wary of having intimate conversations with their teachers. That lack of trust, he said, would make learning harder for both parties.
Chatham’s representative vote on this bill comes from Sen. Natalie Murdock (D-Dist. 20). She told the News + Record she strongly opposes the bill and would vote against it. She said she believes the bill doesn’t support students and puts teachers in danger.
“This legislation does nothing to deal with teacher vacancies, learning loss or any of the other issues facing education,” Murdock said. “I think that this is harmful to youth who identify as LGBTQ+ by forcing those students to be outed.”
She said national trends toward targeting LGBTQ+ youth in education legislation are disheartening and frustrating. Murdock added that she believes the bill could lead to a chilling effect on students in the classroom. She said school should be a safe space, especially when LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to face neglect, abuse or homelessness.
The 10 rights listed in S.B. 49 frequently invoke the idea that parents now lack access to information about their child’s education. Many of these rights, however, are already protected in the North Carolina Constitution. According to the state Constitution, students cannot be forced to participate in activities that are directly contrary to their religious beliefs. However, schools are not compelled to excuse student participation just because the family disagrees with, or dislikes, the ideas presented or because the ideas conflict with their religious beliefs.
This means parents do not have the right to dictate the curriculum, restrict the flow of information from the school, or jeopardize the health and well-being of other children. These cases have been litigated in N.C. courts including the 1996 case Herndon v. Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Board of Education which found school requirements don’t infringe on parental control of student’s education. It was also found in the 2006 case of Leebart v. Harrington, which ruled parents do not have the right to tell public schools what children will be taught.
“We already have statutes that allow parents to have a say so over their child’s education,” Murdock said. “We’re not denying that.”
S.B. 49 would include a number of “new” rights for parents:
• The right to review statewide standardized assessment results as part of the State report card
• The right to access information relating to the State public education system, State standards, report card requirements, attendance requirements, and textbook requirements
• The right to participate in parent-teacher organizations
• The right to review all available records of materials their child has borrowed from a school library
Amy Kappelman, who leads Chatham’s Moms For Liberty chapter, attended Monday’s Senate Rules Committee hearing on the bill in Raleigh.
“This bill is a first step in putting into law what is common sense to most parents,” she told the News + Record. “Asking for transparency concerning the education and health care of children should be considered a given for parents and guardians. Schools are partners with parental decision making, not primary drivers. Parents should have the final say in all important decisions with regard to their minor children, except where there is provable, legally argued harm.”
Murdock said she felt the bill was problematic for the future impacts it may have on education policy in N.C.
“We don’t need to create an environment that makes it even more challenging for teachers to provide instruction in the classroom,” Murdock said. “And I think it’s a real slippery slope. That is where we could be headed if this bill were to pass and be signed into law.”
Murdock said it was ironic that the bill lauded transparency as its focal point, yet was fast-tracked through committee and onto the Senate floor in less than a week with minimal public notice.
“If we really wanted to be transparent, we would really slow this bill down,” she said. “And really think about the long-term impacts that it’s going to have on schools.”
The idea that parents are shut out from their child’s education, according to Murdock, was borne out of the pandemic and has since festered into a national cultural phenomenon in conservative circles.
And the idea that there isn’t inherent transparency between parents and the school system is “absurd,” according to Chatham County Board of Education member Del Turner. She called the proposed bill “frivolous and sad.”
“The same people introducing this bill are the same people who constantly invoke the Constitution of the United States and patriotism,” Turner told the News + Record. “And it seems to me that this bill is in direct opposition to those things that they throw in everybody else’s face.”
She said Chatham County Schools, and districts across the state, have several avenues for parent involvement including volunteer opportunities, parental advisory committees and weekly phone calls from each school to parents.
“This bill seeks to subvert that process by adding in things that cause chaos in the system,” Turner said.
She said one aspect going overlooked in this bill is the rights of the child in their educational process. Turner added that young people have a right to explore their own identities and make choices about their futures.
“In this country, education and the legal system are supposed to be nonpartisan offices because they deal with everyone,” she said. “Education is meant to impart knowledge on children, and it shouldn’t be restricted. They should be allowed to explore whatever they want to explore.”