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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington lawmakers consider Initiative 2081, a proposal strengthening parental rights in schools – though some say it wouldn’t change much

Lights come on in the domed Legislative Building on the Washington Capitol campus as evening approaches in Olympia.  (Jim Camden/For The Spokesman-Review / For The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – Washington lawmakers heard diverging perspectives on Wednesday from parents and educators regarding an initiative designed to solidify and strengthen parental involvement in their children’s education.

The conservative-backed Initiative 2081 crafts a “parents’ bill of rights,” outlining 15 entitlements supporters say parents and legal guardians of K-12 public school children should have. These include the right to review curriculum and textbooks, access academic, counseling and health records, and receive advance notice for a child’s medical treatment.

If adopted, the initiative would also grant parents the right to exempt their child from assignments or educational activities that inquire about a child’s sexual experiences or their family’s political or religious beliefs.

The catch is most of these rights are already state law, said Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, chair of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Committee. She’s compiled a booklet to help parents navigate the confusing nature of the existing laws.

Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who filed the bill of rights measure with the Secretary of State, agreed.

“What this initiative seeks to do is clarify those rights and let parents know in plain, straightforward terms what they can do (and) what they can know,” but “doesn’t change most existing law,” said Walsh, who has also filed five other initiatives voters might see in this year’s ballot.

Wednesday morning’s hearing was the second of three centering on initiatives lawmakers could act on, instead of sending them straight to the November ballot. An hour later, legislators in a neighboring building heard testimony on an initiative that would lift the state’s police pursuit restriction.

Some 95% of the people who signed in to testify supported the parental rights measure, echoed by 89% of people who signed in pro but did not wish to testify.

“By enumerating the rights in one location, the Legislature assures parents that their rights and responsibility for their child’s health and well-being does not end at the schoolhouse door,” Jean Hill said on behalf of the Washington State Catholic Conference.

As supporters voiced concern over the complexity of current laws, others said the same thing about the initiative, calling the language “broad and vague” throughout the hearing. Those with concerns about the initiative also said it might unintentionally target marginalized groups.

The Legal Counsel for Youth and Children, serving over 850 youth in Washington affected by racism and discrimination, warned of potential harm to homeless youth, LGBTQ+ students or those who feel unwelcome at home.

“Youth who need support outside of the home may stop confiding in and asking school staff for help, fearing a report back and retaliation at home,” Executive Director Erin Lovell said. “Additionally, if youth do confide, school employees may be reluctant to refer youth to much-needed support services.”

Jennifer Heine-Withee with the Family Policy Institute of Washington said this initiative isn’t about politics or partisan issues; it’s about reclaiming parental rights. She recounted instances of a teacher being instructed to deceive parents about a child’s gender identity and a father feeling alienated as his daughters were taught to blame white men for societal issues.

However, Tacoma School Board President Lisa Keating said teachers and staff are highly trained to help children in real time and on-site, “a service we believe the families who entrust us with their children’s care every day of the school year expect from us.”

The House Education and Senate Early Learning & K-12 committees are each scheduled to consider voting on the initiative on Friday. If passed through both chambers, the initiative will become law.