Kansas State Board of Education member Deena Horst, left, and Brittany Jones, an attorney with Kansas Family Voice, sat together despite being on opposite sides of a House and Senate debate about imposing unprecedented public disclosure laws applicable to Kansas public schools regarding student curriculum and teacher training materials. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — House and Senate committees conducted back-to-back hearings Wednesday on legislation establishing an educational bill of rights for parents of public school children that extended beyond information about routine academic pursuits to include boundaries for handling moral and religious topics.
While the Senate version centered on ideas of educational transparency in K-12 schools, the House edition waded into the criminal code by creating a misdemeanor offense to deter exposure of students to obscene materials in schools. The House committee also would eliminate the so-called affirmative defense to legal action relied on by educators when stepping into controversial areas of the curriculum.
The House bill would block school districts from negatively evaluating teachers or not renewing contracts of educators based on a refusal to instruct students in ideas conflicting with their personal religious beliefs or who declined to teach ideas couched as critical race theory and related racial philosophies.
The version introduced in the House outlined how school districts would be required to inventory all library books or materials for the purpose of attaching a “parental review” label if found to include sexual conduct, violence or profanity.
Sen. Pat Pettey, a Democrat from Kansas City, Kansas, said the package of parental rights woven into both bills — the two-page Senate Bill 496 and nine-page House Bill 2662 — was modeled after recommendations of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. The Kansas legislation was supported by seven people and opposed by more than 100 individuals who submitted testimony to the committees.
Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, said Kansas would be wise to establish a parents’ bill of rights because politically charged content was spreading nationally through nearly every grade and subject area. More than 20 states have introduced education transparency legislation comparable to the bills in Kansas, he said.
He said many teachers were convinced their mission was to connect history, science, math and other subjects to politics so as to “open the eyes of students to a more enlightened or woke worldview.” He said “academically discredited” essays in the “1619 Project” produced by the New York Times had been adopted by classrooms in all 50 states without proper scrutiny of those materials.
Chaparral High School senior Mattelyn Swartz, the only student to present testimony on the transparency legislation, said she planned to go to college to become a teacher. She opposed the Legislature’s intrusion into classrooms.
“The bill limits educational opportunities and ties the hands of an educator to provide a learning environment that is engaging and individualized,” she said.
Adam Proffitt, budget director for Gov. Laura Kelly, said the legislation would require school districts to absorb millions of dollars in costs associated with formation of online portals of curriculum information and evaluation of library materials. He said the House bill had potential of increasing lawsuits involving school districts.
Vilification of teachers
During the Senate Education Committee, proponents were excited about a bill of rights affirming the right of parents to learn more about curriculum presented to their children. Skeptics said the legislation duplicated existing district policies and state laws. For example, existing state law known as the Parental Rights Act, or KSA 38-141(b), declared public policy of the state that parents “shall retain the fundamental right to exercise primary control over the care and upbringing of their children in their charge.”
Lauren Tice Miller, who lobbies for the Kansas National Education Association, said the proposed bill of rights would erode relationships between teachers and parents by forcing investment of time and money into an online format for communication.
“There is no doubt that this website will serve as an avenue for dark-money funded, non-educator special-interest groups to cherry pick information, remove the context, distribute misinformation and ultimately vilify these same public-school teachers,” Tice Miller said.
Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, said the legislation demonstrated eagerness among some politicians to cater to a narrow slice of parents angry about public schools.
“They shouldn’t have the right to threaten teachers, ban materials or books that present a viewpoint outside of their own,” he said.
Under the House and Senate bills, parents of K-12 students would have the ability to inspect materials, activities, curriculum, lessons, syllabi, surveys, tests, questionnaires, examinations, books, magazines, handouts, and professional development and training materials posted online to each district’s new parent transparency portal.
Parents would have the right to object to learning materials or activities that allegedly impaired a parent’s firmly held beliefs, values or principles. The bill would guarantee the right of a parent to withdraw a child from the school activities, classes or programs.
‘Not some radical idea’
Brittany Jones, an attorney with the Christ-centered organization Kansas Family Voice, said government, schools and the church had a role to fill in educational development of children. A bill of rights guarantees parents or guardians an opportunity to prevent exposure of children to objectionable materials, she said.
“The policy being proposed today is not some radical idea,” Jones said. “Parents are best positioned to know and raise their kids. Educational institutions can be an asset to this relationship.”
Under the Senate bill, a school would be expected to avoid K-12 curriculum and teacher development services that promoted “racially essentialist” doctrine in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The provision in the Kansas legislation was in response to concern about critical race theory or CRT, said Mike O’Neal, a lobbyist with the Kansas Policy Institute.
He said these materials escaped sufficient public scrutiny, which advanced theories that educators were trying to indoctrinate students with certain ideologies or get them to question certain values and beliefs.
“It is a virtual certainty that these issues will play a major role in upcoming primary and general election races across the country and in Kansas,” O’Neal said.
Judith Deedy, executive director of Game On for Kansas Schools, said this portion of the bill raised a baseless accusation that violations of civil rights law were occurring in schools. It’s troubling the civil rights act was being used to attack diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives implemented to make every child find a sense of belonging at school, Deedy said.
Parents would be allowed under the Kansas legislation to inspect written and electronic records maintained by a school for their children. The parents also would be able to review instructional materials used to teach a child. Under the bills, health decisions for the child would include authority to make decisions about vaccinations or immunizations. There was controversy in the Senate as to whether it meant parents could sidestep current inoculation standards for children.
Buhler teacher Samantha Neill, the 2018 Kansas Teacher of the Year, said the legislation was harmful because it would exacerbate the state’s critical shortage of highly qualified educators by driving off good teachers, she said.
“Not because they have something to hide, but because this bill puts into question the kind of people they are. These educators are the people you sit next to at church, visit with at ball games, and stand in line next to at your local grocery store,” Neill said.
The House bill diverged from the Senate’s version by deleting the affirmative defense provided in state law for educators accused of criminal presentation of obscene subject matter. An affirmative defense allowed an educator to introduce evidence, and if found credible, negate liability even if it was proven a defendant committed the alleged acts.
The House legislation would require school districts to provide an online inventory of all library materials. Each item — book, magazine, newspaper, poster, picture, film, record, video — must be evaluated to determine whether it required a “parental review” designation due to sexual, profane or violent content.
A parent’s request for a warning label would have to be accepted unless the item was “unequivocally not deserving of such designation.” The metric for determining whether materials were offensive would be based on contemporary community standards of pornography.
Thomas Witt, executive director of the LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Kansas, said he opposed removal of the affirmative defense for teachers presenting curriculum-approved materials and the move to allow teachers to claim religious exemptions to teaching course materials they were hired to deliver. Both ideas have been proposed and rejected in the past by the Legislature.
“Unfortunately, like so many other truly wretched ideas in this building, it’s back,” he said.
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