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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Parents’ bill of rights’ legislation includes vague language, could lead to discrimination, says lawsuit

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)
By Griffin Reilly Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

VANCOUVER, Wash. – A group of parents, equity organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington are suing the state to prevent the implementation of a conservative-backed measure, known as the “parents’ bill of rights,” the Legislature approved earlier this year.

Initiative 2081 would expand parents’ ability to access school curriculum materials and their child’s medical records. It would also notify parents about any assignments or school activities that include questions about children’s sexual attractions or identifications, family or religious beliefs, and health or psychological problems in the family. Parents can then opt their child out of specific lessons or curricula.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in King County Superior Court. It alleges the legislation, which would take effect June 6, violates the Washington Constitution because it fails to identify existing laws it changes. The groups argue it includes vague language that could be misinterpreted, leading to potentially discriminatory school environments for LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

“The Initiative will harm students and interfere with their right to a quality education, an inclusive curriculum and a non-discriminatory learning environment,” the complaint states. “Educators will face additional burdens teaching inclusive curriculum and anti-bullying, anti-harassment and antidiscrimination lessons, as topics as broad as ‘morals’ and ‘beliefs’ require notice and opt-out.”

Among the 10 plaintiffs is the Southwest Washington Equity Coalition, a Vancouver-based equity policy advising group.

Siobhana McEwen, the coalition’s executive director, said she joined the suit to send the message to legislators that the initiative puts the state on a dangerous path for its goals toward a more inclusive public education.

“We saw this bill as inequitable and troubling,” McEwen said. “The biggest piece is again to remain really critical of how any piece of legislation is advancing our community toward being a more inclusive space where all of us who live here can thrive.”

Legislators explain support

The initiative passed overwhelmingly in both Washington’s House (82-15) and Senate (unanimous).

Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said the initiative’s conservative origins frustrated her at first, but she soon learned it shouldn’t lead to any major changes in protections for minorities or marginalized groups.

“I was quite grumpy at what I thought was yet another coordinated effort by the far right to call into question the judgment of public schools and what we provide the community,” said Stonier, who has extensive work experience in public education. “We asked legal staff to tell us what the outcome was going to be and whether or not this initiative would disrupt the goals of (progressive) policy we already have on the books. And the answer was no.”

Stonier also said the bill opens the door for greater transparency from progressive parents like herself.

“We had a lot of progressives sign this initiative, thinking, ‘Yes, I want to have a say in my kid’s education and make sure they have access to health services, appropriate history classes,’” Stonier said Tuesday. “There’s nothing in (I-2081) that says different than that.”

Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, who, along with Stonier, supported the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act in 2020 to prevent so-called panic defenses, also voted in favor of I-2081.

Wylie said she sympathizes with the plaintiffs in the suit and pledged to reopen the initiative in the future if it was interpreted locally in a way that discriminates against LGBTQ+ students or students of color.

“I understand the impulse to want to fight back because it seems to be sponsored by people who are not friendly to LGBTQ rights, and I can understand people wanting to make a statement about that in the form of a lawsuit,” she said. “But when the folks who know school policies peeled back the onion, they felt this could be safely implemented and changed if necessary.”

Both Wylie and Stonier also emphasized that despite their qualms with the initiative’s origins, passing it in legislative session would make it easier to update or revise in the future. Had it been passed by voters as a ballot initiative, legislators wouldn’t be able to reexamine it for two years.

Inside the suit

McEwen said the Southwest Washington Equity Coalition’s primary concern with I-2081 is that includes no clarifications about how it may revise or affect other existing laws in education.

“There’s contradicting language in the bill,” McEwen said. “Are students required to have an inclusive curriculum, or can I opt my student out because it’s against my values?”

McEwen said an accurate education of American and international history will be paramount in the years to come in Southwest Washington, a region that’s grown substantially more diverse in the past decade. Evergreen Public Schools, the largest school district in the region, recorded having a minority-majority this school year, with 49.3 percent of its student body identifying as white.

“With such a rapidly diversifying community in Vancouver, we need our kids to get the best education possible, we need them to have the most diverse education possible for the good of our community,” McEwen said. “And that doesn’t negate my ability to call my teacher and ask those hard questions (about curricula).”

Stonier said a key element in the coming months will be for the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction to offer instructions to school districts about I-2081 to ensure it isn’t misinterpreted.

“I’m really anxious to see guidance from (the state superintendent),” Stonier said. “Districts are going to be looking to their office for guidance, and in the absence of that guidance, districts may feel they need to change something.”