Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Sean V. O’Brien: Parents’ rights must be affirmed to put students first

By Sean V. O’Brien

In the wake of tremendous volatility in the public school system the past few years – truly historic in nature and in significance due to the COVID-19 school lockdowns and the catastrophic results we are seeing in student learning loss – a parents’ rights movement has rapidly gained steam across the country.

From teachers to school administrators, coaches to counselors, public school systems have a number of figures who can serve as supporters for students. But at the end of the day, they each have their own interests that also play a factor.

The parent is the No. 1 advocate for a student. And fortunately, Congress is taking significant steps to enshrine the rights of parents into law.

Rep. Julia Letlow, R-Louisiana, a former educator and mother of two young children, has introduced H.R. 5, the Parents Bill of Rights, which will be voted on by the full U.S. House of Representatives later this week.

The legislation seeks to empower parents and promote the well-being of children in public schools. As she puts it, “Parents deserve to have a seat at the table when it comes to their child’s education.”

There are five pillars of H.R. 5, rooted in transparency and accountability:

Parents have the right to know what their children are being taught.

The legislation states that school districts must post curriculum information publicly and provide the public a copy of any revisions to the state’s academic standards or learning benchmarks.

Parents in Washington will never forget what Washington Education Association President Larry Delaney – head of the largest teachers’ union in the state – said in 2020 when asked if he was concerned by the potential learning loss facing students after schools had already been closed for months:

“Across the country, everyone has missed certain learning. So if everyone is ‘behind,’ I guess no one is behind.

“Really, we’ve gotten this attachment to some arbitrary standards that we’ve put out there. Our students are going to be fine.”

Parents may feel differently than Delaney, particularly as the State Board of Education’s own data showed 70% of students failing in math and 50% failing in English coming out of the pandemic. With the Parents Bill of Rights, school systems will be required to inform parents if bureaucrats try changing the standards in our schools.

Parents have the right to be heard.

The legislation includes provisions that teachers must offer two in-person meetings with parents each year. It also states that parents must be allowed to address the school board on issues impacting the education of children in the school district, and that educators and policymakers must respect the First Amendment right of parents and their right to assemble.

In September 2021, the National School Boards Association wrote a letter to the Biden Administration calling on federal agencies to investigate alleged “acts of intimidation” by angry parents at school board meetings, labeling them as domestic terrorists. While the NSBA later retracted the letter, more than two dozen of its state association members left the organization – and irreparable harm was placed on the relationship between school boards and parents.

Parents have the right to see school budgets and spending.

Taxpayer dollars must be used accountably and transparently. The Parents Bill of Rights states that there must be public disclosure of school district budgets and each school’s budget, including revenues and expenditures.

Parents have the right to protect their child’s privacy.

Parents are already facing the difficult challenges posed by harmful social media apps like TikTok.

The last thing they need is schools furthering the influence of Big Tech on their children’s lives. Rep. Letlow’s legislation asserts that schools must not share student data with tech companies without parental permission, nor can they sell student data for commercial purposes. The bill also states that parents must consent before any medical exam takes place at school, including mental health or substance use disorder screenings.

Parents have the right to keep their children safe.

When a father in Loudoun County, Virginia, tried to seek accountability at a school board meeting after his daughter had been raped in the bathroom of her school, he was arrested and physically escorted out of the board meeting. The Loudoun County superintendent was later fired after a grand jury found the school lied to parents about the crime even taking place. The assailant went on to assault another girl after switching schools amid the cover-up. The Parents Bill of Rights requires schools to notify parents of violent activity occurring on school grounds or at school-sponsored events while still protecting the privacy of the students involved in the incident.

Here in Eastern Washington, several of our elected officials are leading on affirming parents’ rights. Both Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Rep. Dan Newhouse have signed on as original cosponsors of the federal Parents Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, state Sen. Perry Dozier, of Walla Walla. and state Rep. Jenny Graham, of Spokane, have introduced similar measures in their respective chambers in Olympia.

These pillars laid out in the Parents Bill of Rights are not controversial ideas – nor are they partisan. In some communities, many of these measures are already in place and working well. But every parent – regardless of income, background, or geography – deserves to have a seat at the table when it comes to their child’s education. This week, the U.S. House of Representatives will make great strides in ensuring that is the case.

Sean V. O’Brien is Eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center. He is the former executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus and is based in the Tri-Cities. Members of the Cowles family, owners of The Spokesman-Review, have previously hosted fundraisers for the Washington Policy Center and sit on the organization’s board.

More from this author