Parental rights fight in Kansas schools spawns book bans, scrutiny of LGBTQ students

Schmidt highlights legislation, which Kelly vetoed, in campaign for governor

By: - September 30, 2022 10:36 am
In a 90-minute debate, Laura Kelly and Derek Schmidt weren't just in different worlds. They were in different universes.

Republican Derek Schmidt promises to sign a parents' bill of rights into law within his first 100 days in office, if he wins the November election. Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the model legislation this past session. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Lawmakers say remnants of a proposed parents’ bill of rights are impacting school districts, referencing several schools’ transgender student policies and recent attempts to remove books from curriculum.

Critics of the parents’ bill of rights say the proposal is unnecessarily restrictive.

Under the bill, which Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed in April, each public school district would implement an online portal where parents of K-12 students would be able to inspect a variety of lessons, syllabi, books, tests and magazines, among other learning tools. The parents could object to learning materials and block them from their child.

The GOP-controlled Legislature fell short of the two-thirds majority needed in both the Senate and House to override Kelly’s veto. Now, Republican Attorney General Derek Schmidt promises to sign the bill within his first 100 days in office if he wins November’s gubernatorial election.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the legislation was about transparency and benefits school districts. As a former public school teacher, she said, the legislation fell in line with her former job responsibilities, such as distributing syllabi and informing parents on how grades would be determined. 

Baumgardner said the legislation was based on feedback from parents and concerned community members after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Is it workable? Absolutely,” Baumgardner said. “Is it punitive? Absolutely not. There was no stick, no punishment. But what it did do is it set some guidelines, so that there would be consistency from school district to school district.”

The legislation was modeled on recommendations by the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and mirrored packages introduced in multiple states.

Sen. Cindy Holscher appears Aug. 23, 2022, at an education roundtable discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. Cindy Holscher appears Aug. 23, 2022, at an education roundtable discussion at the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library. She predicts the Legislature will try again to pass the parents’ bill of rights. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, a vocal opponent of the bill, said many state senators were out of touch with how public education works. Out of the 40 current senators, only four have experience with their children attending public schools, she said.

Holscher said the bill was unnecessary and took attention away from real issues, such as the teacher shortage in the state. She said she believes the bill will come back in some form during the next legislative session. 

“The fact of the matter is we have a super majority of extremists who have been working to defund our schools for many years, so it will come back,” Holscher said. “That’s always two things I always say about Topeka: Bad bills never die, and it can always get worse. It’ll come back.” 

Holscher said public education would be threatened if Kelly is voted out of office. 

“If we don’t retain her and there’s still a supermajority, the house has fallen off the cliff honestly, because the super majority of extremists, if they have their governor in power, will be able to knock away the foundation of our public schools. And that’s very concerning,” Holscher said. 

In a Sept. 16 news release, Schmidt reiterated his commitment to passing the legislation. 

“Laura Kelly and the teachers unions that bankroll her campaigns believe that they are in charge of schools,” Schmidt said. “They are not. Our public schools function at the highest level only when parents are deeply involved in their children’s education and when they work in tandem with a good teacher. That’s why today, I am calling on the Kansas Legislature, within the first 100 days I’m in office, to send me a Parents Bill of Rights.”

Kelly has repeatedly criticized the bill, including in her veto statement, in which she said she was committed to addressing parental concerns in a different way. 

Rep. Stephanie Byers, D-Wichita, said the legislation would hurt education in the state in general, and would also target LGBTQ students because teachers would have an obligation to notify parents about their child’s pronouns and other preferences. Byers was an educator for almost 30 years and is the first transgender person elected to the Legislature. 

“That helps kind of build that darkness around and continue to build that darkness that depression that builds up and they don’t get to live authentically,” Byers said. “They don’t get to feel what truth feels like, to be yourself. That creates other issues. The parents’ bill of rights puts an interesting burden on teachers and schools.” 

Byers said Schmidt is using the legislation to gain support among his peers. Schmidt also opposes critical race theory and the “age-inappropriate gender or sexual identity content, discussions, or curriculums in the classroom,” as he said in a campaign website post.

“I think he’s pushing it so hard because he lacks direction for what his own platform should be,” Byers said. “And so he’s looking at who he perceives to be the leaders of the Republican Party in the state of Kansas. On education issues, it’s going to be Kristey Williams, it’s going to be Renee Erickson that he looks to and they’re going to be the ones that push this through in the respective committees.”

Sen. Renee Erickson cheers on Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt during a debate at the Kansas State Fair on Sept. 10, 2022, in Hutchinson. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sen. Erickson, R-Wichita, and Rep. Williams, R-Augusta, have supported the legislation, saying it would empower parents. 

“Parents as their children’s first and most important teachers is a universally held belief,” Erickson said in Schmidt’s Sept. 16 news release. “That is the foundation for the Parents Bill of Rights. If school officials truly value transparency, they should embrace parental involvement in every aspect of their child’s education.”

Byers believes the bill would worsen book bans in the state. The Seaman school district voted this week to take “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” out of circulation, and the evaluation comes in the wake of other Kansas school book removals. Goddard Public Schools and Derby Public Schools both banned “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in 2021. 

Goddard removed more than two dozen books from the district’s school libraries in November 2021 before reversing the decision, and students in the North Kansas City School District campaigned to get novels dealing with sexuality and gender put back on the shelves. 

“The bill of rights, if it were to pass, guarantees parents some sort of right of censorship,” Byers said. 

Rep. Susan Estes, R-Wichita, said the legislation was a way to address parents’ feelings about Kelly closing schools for two months at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They watched their children suffer academic losses,” Estes said in Schmidt’s Sept. 16 news release. They felt abandoned and voiceless. The Parents’ Bill of Rights acknowledges that parents are the primary decision maker in a child’s life and ensures they have a seat at the table and a full plate of information from which to make the best decisions for their child.”

Director of communications for the Kansas National Education Association, Marcus Baltzell, said the gubernatorial election reignited his and his fellow educator’s concerns about governmental overreach in education. 

“What this is really about is about putting more pressure on educators to essentially sacrifice themselves on the altar of right wing extremism,” Baltzell said. 

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Rachel Mipro
Rachel Mipro

A graduate of Louisiana State University, Rachel Mipro has covered state government in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. She and her fellow team of journalists were 2022 Goldsmith Prize Semi-Finalists for their work featuring the rise of the KKK in northern Louisiana, following racially-motivated shootings in 1960. With her move to the Midwest, Rachel is now turning her focus toward issues within Kansas public policies.