General Assembly poised to take up array of parental rights bills
Educational savings acounts, student name changes and library materials
House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, and Minority Leader Del. Don Scott, D-Portsmouth on Jan. 11 at the Virginia State Capitol. (Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia Republicans’ push for parental rights, a term used to cover a range of policies from so-called school choice to oversight of public school library books, is poised to spark debates as the General Assembly convenes this week in Richmond.
Starting on Thursday, lawmakers will dig deeper into a slate of education bills that include proposals to create publicly funded education savings accounts that parents could use to send their children to private schools, prohibit school officials from changing the names of students on official forms without a change of name order, and maintain a catalog of all printed and audiovisual materials in each school’s library for parents and students to review.
“We’re all about empowering parents,” said House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, during a pre-session call with reporters. “And I think the last couple of years have shown us that parents are eager to have a greater say in the education of their children and what goes on in their school and what’s being said to them and put in their heads.”
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned heavily on parental rights during his run for governor in 2020 against former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. The same year saw increased tension between parents and school officials around the state over school reopenings, masking requirements, transgender student policies and controversial books.
Many political observers saw McAuliffe’s comment during a debate that “I don’t believe parents should be telling schools what they should be teaching” as a key moment that tilted voters toward Youngkin.
On his first day of office, Youngkin signed executive orders to “restore excellence in education by ending the use of divisive concepts, including critical race theory” and “empower Virginia parents in their children’s education and upbringing” by making masks optional in schools.
“Parents matter and we must protect their fundamental right to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education and care of their children,” Youngkin said during the annual State of the Commonwealth address on Wednesday.
The Youngkin administration has also proposed an overhaul of state model policies for the treatment of transgender students that would require parental approval for any changes to students’ “names, nicknames and/or pronouns.”
Other bills filed this session include legislation allowing parents to opt out of immunization requirements and requiring school boards to document how any policy they adopt “either impacts or does not impact the fundamental right of a parent to make decisions concerning the upbringing, education, and care of his child.”
Educational savings accounts, credits and scholarships
Last week, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, announced a proposal that would allow parents to set up a savings account funded with state dollars that could be used to cover educational expenses, including tuition at private schools in Virginia.
Similar bills have been filed by Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, and Dels. Phillip Scott, R-Spotsylvania, and Marie March, R-Floyd.
“You can fully fund public education, but also give the right of the parents to decide the educational opportunity for their child and have them use those funds to follow the child,” said Davis.
Democrats have criticized such proposals as taking away necessary funding from public schools.
“We will continue to fight any efforts, no matter who they come from, to undermine our public education system, divert funds from our public education system, and go back to the days where it was separate,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.
Books in school libraries
Republican lawmakers have also filed bills to increase transparency about how schools collect printed and audiovisual materials and create a process for removing them from school libraries.
Over the past two years, parent groups in Virginia and other states have criticized numerous books in school libraries, many of them dealing with LGBTQ themes, as “controversial” and “inappropriate.”
Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation requiring the Department of Education to develop model policies for school boards to notify parents of any instructional material with sexually explicit content and provide “alternative, nonexplicit” material.
Virginia Explained: How the state got its parents’ rights law
Under this year’s House Bill 1448, the Department of Education would be directed to recommend model policies for the “selection and removal of books and other audiovisual materials in public schools” by Nov. 1. The bill, proposed by Del. Bobby Orrock, R-Caroline, orders the department to consult with school boards, public school librarians, parents of public school students and others.
Similarly, Senate Bill 787 from Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, would require school boards to adopt policies for the selection, evaluation and checkout of all printed or audiovisual materials. The bill would also require students to have parental consent before checking out any materials that depict a child engaged in any sexual act.
Separate legislation filed by Del. Tim Anderson, R-Virginia Beach, would require public schools to catalog all materials in their library and make that catalog available to parents and students. Additionally, the bill would require schools to include “a prominent notation” if the item contains graphic sexual content and permit any parent to restrict a child’s access to such materials.
Gilbert said state law already gives parents, who “play the most pivotal role” in students’ lives, some rights to be notified about their children’s education. However, he said Republicans want to go further.
“Anything we can do to give parents more power, more control, more input and make the schools more accountable to them, I think is something the majority of our Republican House caucus would like to see,” Gilbert said.
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