To become speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy had to give the most radical parts of his party pretty much everything they asked for. The negotiations elided the fact that McCarthy is actually not all that different from his detractors. By introducing the repressive so-called “Parents Bill of Rights,” McCarthy reminds us that indeed, he’s in good company.
The Republican-led bill aims to police teachers and school staff even more, at a time when school boards across the country have expressed concern for academic freedom (and even for their lives) in the face of a loud minority protesting everything from Covid safety precautions to classroom material.
The bill, introduced on Wednesday by Representative Julia Letlow, says that parents’ “God-given right to make decisions for their children’’ is being disrupted as “special interest groups try to criminalize free speech.” Letlow’s bill—applauded by far-right special interest groups like Moms for Liberty (funded by billionaire heiresses and endorsed by figures like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis)—polices schools down to the materials teachers use in class and what books kids are allowed to read.
Couched in what may appear like reasonable respect for parents’ concern for their children, the bill in reality opens up more avenues to attack already overworked and under-appreciated teachers.
The bill—echoing practices already being rolled out in places like Florida—calls for school districts to post curriculum information and provide parents with lists of reading materials available in school libraries. Again, what may seem like reasonable enough requests have been, in practice, draconian. Teachers in Florida subject to similar standards have been forced to either empty classroom libraries, cover them up, or catalog each book into a central system to check for compliance with their districts’ restrictive standards.
Other parts of the Bill of Rights seem to fearmonger and imply that parents are never listened to in schools. The bill calls for school districts to consider community feedback when making decisions, allow parents to address school boards, and notify parents of violent activity happening on school grounds. These are already more-or-less standard practices for schools across the country, but in combining these demands with others that are more radical, the bill’s proponents push an agenda that escalates an already ongoing assault on teachers and students.
In 2021, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to the government asking for a comprehensive investigation into violent threats against school board members, writing that the threats “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the Justice Department to carry out such an inquiry shortly after. In February, House Republicans subpoenaed officials including Garland, questioning such efforts to support school board members, in attempts to cast doubt on the school board letter and their concerns in the first place.
And now, Republicans are lining up behind a bill that broadly mandates educators and policymakers to “respect the First Amendment rights of parents as well as their right to assemble.” In hiding behind amorphous constitutional language, Republicans are signing off on, and encouraging, threats against school staff and escalating an attack on the freedom of teachers to teach and students to learn without being policed by outside interests.