Kansas Senate approves bill that would allow parents to challenge lesson plans and books in schools

The plan, often referred to by supporters as the "parents' bill of rights," would let parents object to materials being taught in Kansas classrooms or held in school libraries. Above, a classroom in the Blue Valley School District. File image.

By Jim McLean

Republicans have pushed a bill through the Kansas Senate aimed at addressing conservative anger over how issues of race, gender and sexuality are being handled in classrooms across the state.

The 24 to 15 vote on Tuesday was more than enough to send the bill to the Kansas House, but it’s short of the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

The measure, dubbed by supporters as the “parents’ bill of rights,” mirrors Republican-backed proposals in several states. It asserts that parents — not teachers and school administrators — are responsible for directing their children’s education and religious training.

It would require school districts to open all teaching materials to inspection and establish a process for parents to object to materials they deem inappropriate. Students could be withdrawn from lessons parents object to.

The plan also creates a process for challenging books in school libraries.

Opponents say the real purpose of the bill is to stop teachers from covering sensitive, but essential, topics. They point to a section of the bill that would prohibit districts from using teacher training materials that “promote racially essentialist doctrine.”

That language stems from conservative opposition to critical race theory, a framework for studying how racism has affected American institutions. It’s an advanced course of study not taught in Kansas schools. Still, conservatives fear that elements are creeping into history classrooms at all levels.

Senate Democratic Leader Dinah Sykes said Kansas public school students deserve “an honest and accurate education.” One that explores America’s complicated racial history.

“Politically motivated legislators,” Sykes said, “have no business stoking fears … to undermine that goal.”

Opponents of the bill are the ones engaging in fear mongering, said Republican Sen. Molly Baumgardner. She said it does nothing more than protect “the rights of parents in raising their children.”

Opponents also question the need for the bill. During a hearing earlier in the session, Sykes asked supporters for a specific examples of school districts withholding information from parents or refusing to listen to their concerns.

“I’m still waiting,” Sykes said during floor debate on the legislation.

The Salina school district’s recent response to parents who objected to a high school library book is a good example, Baumgardner said.

When frustrated parents attempted to read passages from the book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by nonbinary author and LBGTQ activist George M. Johnson, the school board shut them down, Baumgardner said.

“The parents had gone through the process of contacting the teacher, the librarian, (and) school administrator and felt they weren’t being heard,” she said.

The bill now goes to the House, where a similar but stricter bill is already under consideration.

Gov. Kelly has criticized the bill as the “teacher demoralization act,” but stopped short of saying she would veto it.

Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org.

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