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Day 73: In the 'Parents' Rights' fight, all parents are equal but some are more equal than others
There's very little education in this 'parents' rights' bill.
Good morning, Alaska! It’s Day 73.
In this edition: The House Education Committee is slated to take public testimony on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s “parents’ rights” bill that seems tailor-made to make the life of LGBTQ+ kids more difficult than it already is. Let’s look at what they really mean when they’re talking about “parents’ rights,” which seemingly focuses on ensuring the rights of certain parents prevail over all others while offering very, very little in the way of actual education and how it fits into the larger attack on public schools.
Current mood: 🤨
In the 'Parents' Rights' fight, all parents are equal but some are more equal than others
Tonight, the House Education Committee is slated to take public testimony on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s major policy push of this year’s legislative session: The deeply controversial legislation to bring the GOP’s culture wars to Alaska’s schools with policies that seem tailor-made to make the lives of gender-nonconforming students more difficult under the guise of the unobjectionable banner of “parents’ rights.”
House Bill 105 is set to take public testimony starting at 5:15 with the committee’s most conservative members demanding they prioritize whoever can attend the public testimony in-person after last week’s right-wing fly-in didn’t yield the wave of opposition to increasing school funding that they had hoped.
The call-in numbers:
Everywhere else: 844-586-9085
In the weeks since the legislation was introduced, Republican legislators have talked glowingly about “parents’ rights” and, to hear it from them, public schools have become a battlefield where Good Christian families are under near-constant assault by a vicious cabal of teachers who’ve been indoctrinating kids with a steady curriculum of hardcore pornography and notions of equality. In the House Finance Committee, Tok Republican Rep. Mike Cronk—a man who allegedly taught for 25 years—claimed with confidence that schools are now trying to become parents.
The appropriate response, they argue then, is legislation that would dictate who can use which bathrooms, would block issues of sex and gender from discussion without written parental permission, would prevent students who are gender-nonconforming from using their preferred pronouns or names without written parental permission and, perhaps most cruelly, would force teachers to out students who may confide in them to their parents. And all of this would come with the hammer of costly litigation—explicitly encouraged by the bill—hanging over teachers and school districts.
When they talk about “parents’ rights,” though, it quickly becomes evident that we’re not talking about the rights of all parents and all children and all their rights afforded under the Alaska Constitution’s stout right to privacy clause, but the right of a few to dictate educational policy to the rest.
I found a recent column by New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, entitled “What the Republican push for ‘Parents’ Rights’ is really about” to be particularly edifying:
“Parents’ rights,” you will have noticed, never seems to involve parents who want schools to be more open and accommodating toward gender-nonconforming students. It’s never invoked for parents who want their students to learn more about race, identity and the darker parts of American history. And we never hear about the rights of parents who want schools to offer a wide library of books and materials to their children.
And as other legislators in Alaska have pointed out, there’s not exactly a lot of education or even parental involvement contained in this legislation. Where does this legislation encourage parents to read to their children? Where does it find ways to make volunteering feasible for working-class families? What does it do to improve educational outcomes, particularly for those on the margins? How does it do anything beyond making the already-difficult lives of kids more difficult?
It doesn’t seem that the legislators supporting this legislation seem to care, ignoring the multitude of ways parents already have a great amount of say over their children’s education and many opportunities for to review and provide input on curriculum and books. Parents who object to their children learning about sex, teen dating violence or sexual abuse awareness are already well within their rights to pull their kids from classes. Instead, they’re consumed by the fiction that schools and teachers have the time and resources to be indoctrinating their kids, and in doing so are backing a set of policies that would allow a concerned few the right to dictate education to the rest.
And never mind that the legislation raises its own legal concerns under the Alaska Constitution’s right to privacy, which is where we are also ensured our right to autonomy over our health care and is why conservatives have long targeted it to be rewritten to meet their overreaching notions. Those darn constitutional rights!
The Alaska Constitution’s privacy clause doesn’t apply only to adults, and in a memo from Legislative Legal Services, requested by Rep. Jennie Armstrong, the legislation would “likely raise challenges under the Alaska Constitution’s Privacy Clause.”
“Prohibiting a gender non-conforming or transgender student from using the restroom of their choice, potentially requiring the student to abruptly begin using a different restroom, may publicly reveal the person’s status as a transgender or gender-nonconforming student,” explained the memo, which was reported on by the Anchorage Daily News.
If you need a clear look at the attitude of “parents’ rights” advocates, look no further than what Rep. Tom McKay—an Anchorage Republican who won his race by a mere seven votes and has become one of the most petulant members of the House—had to say about the bill after it was introduced.
“As a parent of five, my children belong to me,” he said at a news conference. “They do not belong to the school.”
Last week, McKay dismissed the public testimony supporting an increase to school funding because, as he claimed, teachers are just trying to get rich off school funding. At the close of Wednesday’s hearing on HB 105, McKay demanded that people who can afford to fly into Juneau are given priority over everyone else who takes the time to testify on the legislation, a particularly rich claim given last week he said the Real Alaskans were too busy sitting at home to testify on the legislation.
However the testimony ends up going tonight, it’s all ultimately a distraction from the very real need to put resources into schools as districts stare down the barrel of very real budget shortfalls that threaten to balloon class sizes, shut down programs and shutter schools. At worst, it fans the flames of animosity toward teachers, toward school districts and, unfortunately, toward LGBTQ+ students.
And that seems to be the cruel point of it all.
A concerted attack on the public school system
Here’s more from Bouie:
The reality of the “parents’ rights” movement is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curriculum to the rest of the community. It is, in essence, an institutionalization of the heckler’s veto, in which a single parent—or any individual, really—can remove hundreds of books or shut down lessons on the basis of the political discomfort they feel. “Parents’ rights,” in other words, is when some parents have the right to dominate all others.
And, of course, the point of this movement—the point of creating this state-sanctioned heckler’s veto—is to undermine public education through a thousand little cuts, each meant to weaken public support for teachers and public schools, and to open the floodgates to policies that siphon funds and resources from public institutions and pump them into private ones.
It’s important to remember that nearly every proponent of this legislation is also a long-running supporter of funneling as much public money as possible toward private and religious schools. As a legislator, Sen. Mike Dunleavy’s main policy goal outside of meddling with teen dating violence awareness program Bree’s Law was a proposed constitutional amendment to implement a voucher system in the state. It’s an issue that his attorney general, Treg Taylor, also seems particularly interested in pushing when not eroding the rights of LGBTQ+ adults through other avenues.
It’s also an issue that House Education Committee co-Chair Rep. Jamie Allard has been particularly keen on, too, hosting a hearing earlier this session on what she probably thought were the grand virtues of school choice though the real takeaway seemed to be that the voucher system really only performs well because you can block poor and minority students from attending.
Alaska and its education system face very real challenges, requiring serious and committed work from everyone if we hope to make strives in addressing them. We face a dire shortage of teachers with many classrooms starting the year without a permanent teacher, there are schools in Anchorage where the lunch looks like it was cobbled together from a gas station and we have a reading bill that no one seems to really know if it has the resources to even be effective. There are many, many proposals on the table to address those issues that can and should be garnering legislative attention that would make a real, meaningful difference in raising up the least-privileged among us.
Instead, this is where the governor and his allies are choosing to invest their attention. A distraction under the unobjectionable banner of “parents’ rights.”
Here’s the final word from Bouie:
The culture war that conservatives are currently waging over education is, like the culture wars in other areas of American society, a cover for a more material and ideological agenda. The screaming over “wokeness” and “D.E.I.” is just another Trojan horse for a relentless effort to dismantle a pillar of American democracy that, for all of its flaws, is still one of the country’s most powerful engines for economic and social mobility.
Ultimately, then, the “parents’ rights” movement is not about parents at all; it’s about whether this country will continue to strive for a more equitable and democratic system of education, or whether we’ll let a reactionary minority drag us as far from that goal as possible, in favor of something even more unequal and hierarchical than what we already have.
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