Kansas Democrat threatens to recruit parents to sue schools for lack of honest history lessons
House fails to override veto of parental bill of rights, which Rep. Valdenia Winn denounces as ‘a ploy to capitalize on the national manipulation of some parents’ anxieties’
Rep. Valdenia Winn countered the parental bill of rights with a promise to find parents who would sue over lack of honest history lessons in schools. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Rep. Valdenia Winn offered a proposal to House Republicans: If they were to override the governor’s veto of legislation installing a parental bill of rights, she would recruit parents to file lawsuits over the lack of honest history lessons in public schools.
After all, Winn said, the parental bill of rights “essentially” gives parents the ability to sue schools over any materials they find objectionable.
The House on a 72-50 vote fell short Thursday of the two-thirds majority needed to complete the override of Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto. Senate Bill 58 would have required school boards to adopt policies guaranteeing parents the right to inspect and object to any learning materials, activates, curriculum, surveys, handouts or health records, and seek the removal of any book or magazine from a school library.
Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, denounced the legislation as “a ploy to capitalize on the national manipulation of some parents’ anxieties.”
“There is this big problem if you accept this ploy that children are being brainwashed, and there are these nefarious things going on in schools,” Winn said. “It’s not happening.”
The bill is driven by anxiety of those who don’t want to accept the U.S. is changing, Winn said.
She said the bill coopts the language of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that the bill’s supporters couldn’t tell her why. That legislation, she said, prohibits discrimination in schools.
“So what I will do if you pass this, I will personally and collectively engage parents who may have marginalized students, or other parents who look at the curriculum in their districts,” Winn said. “And if it does not truthfully and honestly talk about the 300 years of brutality of African American enslavement, or if it does not teach about Jim Crow and lynching and domestic terrorism, and the Ku Klux Klan. Or if it does not talk about the Japanese American concentration camps. Or the Stono Rebellion. Or the Stonewall Inn riots. Then those parents have the same right to sue the school district. And if that’s what you want — all the litigation — then that’s what you have in this bill.”
Rep. Stephen Owens, a Hesston Republican, said parents frequently have complaints with schools. Directing his comments at Winn, and misinterpreting hers, he said the assertion that “this never occurs is patently false, period.”
He read several complaints from his phone. One parent claimed a teacher lined up children based on their views of gun rights.
“From that day forward, she gave our son near-failing grades no matter how hard he tried,” Owens quoted from the unnamed parent’s complaint. “We email the teacher: No response.”
Another parent complained about being denied information by a high school teacher. Another complained about the lack of communication from various school officials.
This happens more than people realize, Owens said.
“Do you want the government raising your children?” Owens said. “Or is it your responsibility to raise your children?”
Winn returned to the floor to address Owens’ comments.
“What I said was not happening was the nefarious brainwashing,” Winn said.
“I will continue to say that there is a manipulation of parental anxieties,” she added. “There is a national successful manipulation of parental anxieties. And it appears to come from the fears of change. The concern that some kids would feel badly doesn’t address the concerns of the kids that perhaps are the targets. So I say again, clearly, everyone in the world supports parental rights.”
Rep. Steve Huebert, a Republican from Valley Falls, argued the parental bill of rights isn’t a ploy. The issue is coming up, he said, because of “real things going on in this country that need to be dealt with.”
“Just yesterday, and we talked about it in our caucus, President Biden in talking to teacher unions just said — and I’m not making this up, you can go read it online — that when those kids are in your classroom, they’re your kids, not the parents’. You can say, ‘Well, that’s a misinterpretation of what he’s saying.’ But there’s a whole lot out there that says that’s real. That’s the belief. And they just as soon not.”
Biden said students are “all our children,” and “they’re like yours when they’re in the classroom” during remarks Wednesday for an event recognizing the 2022 national and state teachers of the year. Republicans across the country have omitted the “like” when referencing Biden’s quote.
Huebert said he was shocked the governor vetoed the parental bill of rights, especially since she signed legislation banning protections for undocumented residents in response to a Wyandotte County ordinance.
“I appreciate she’s got some high-paid consultants,” Huebert said. “She needs to get some new ones.”
Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican, said lawmakers for years have heard from educators who say they welcome parental engagement and that they want more.
“But as the parents started getting involved and getting engaged, it’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, maybe we didn’t mean it quite that much,’” Landwehr said.
She objected to school libraries providing access to “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe about Kobabe’s path to gender-identity as nonbinary and queer. The book has been targeted through a national campaign to ban books written by authors who are people of color, LGBTQ+, Black and Indigenous, and feature characters from marginalized groups.
“Some parents may approve of that book, and that’s their right,” Landwehr said. “But some parents may not want their kids to have access to that book. And that is also their right.”
Rep. Pat Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican, also appeared to reference “Gender Queer” when he complained about “highly charged explicit sexual comics in our library.” Other gripes on his list included teachers flying Black Lives Matter flags and asking students if they are vaccinated.
Rep. Chuck Schmidt, a Wichita Democrat, said no parent testified in favor of the bill. Only large organizations, including some from out of state, that regularly criticize public schools supported the bill, and “that ought to tell you something,” he said.
But there is a bigger problem to consider, he said.
“I’ve talked to a lot of teachers,” Schmidt said. “They see this as an attack on them when their morale is already at an all time low.”
Rep. Kristey Williams, an Augusta Republican and chairwoman of the K-12 Education Budget Committee that produced the bill, led a crusade against the teaching of critical race theory, later rebranded as “critical pedagogy,” in hearings last fall and early in this legislative session. In a hearing in October, Williams said legislators should consider the mental health of a “little white girl” who is burdened with the shame of learning about racial oppression. A two-hour hearing in January provided a platform for two white parents who objected to themes of LGBTQ tolerance, implicit bias, white privilege and white fragility.
As the House concluded its debate Thursday, Williams said the interest in parental rights is “not because we fear history, but because we want to bring parents, teachers and students together.”
“I do love a respectful, robust debate on issues that matter to all of us,” Williams said. “There’s no need to vilify our discussion or distract from the facts. It was said that this is attack on teachers. And they have a low morale at this time. I would challenge each one of you to go visit with teachers and find out why their morale is low at this time. There are reasons, and I’ll tell you what — it has nothing to do with the parents’ bill of rights or the Legislature. It has to do with the culture and the climate that exists in the schools.”
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