KS Senate passes softened parental rights bill, but public education groups remain opposed

The Kansas Senate approved a bill Tuesday aimed at ensuring parents can remove their child from classroom activities to which they object.

The chamber voted 23 to 17 to pass the bill, which is a substantially weakened version of parental rights policy Republicans have sought in Kansas and nationwide in recent years.

“This is not a bill of rights, it is just the parent’s right to direct the education and upbringing of their children,” said Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican.

The bill now heads back to the Kansas House where negotiators from both chambers will work out differences in their versions of the policy.

Both chambers passed versions of the bill with far less than a two-thirds majority needed to overcome a gubernatorial veto. The opposition from Democrats and moderate Republican comes even though the Republican have substantially weakened the policy in the past year. The Senate fell four votes short Tuesday while the House fell nine votes short last month.

The parental rights push emerged in Kansas and nationwide as a reaction to parental anger over COVID-19 mitigation measures in schools and curriculum dealing with race and gender.

A bill passed by Kansas Republicans last year, which failed to become law following a veto from Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, was deemed the “parents’ bill of rights.” Kelly referred to it as the “teacher demoralization act.”

It outlined a broad range of rights afforded to parents in the state and would have allowed parents to challenge content in a course, impacting its ability to be taught in a class at all rather than simply whether their own child would be exposed to it.

The version the Senate narrowly passed Tuesday outlines that parents can remove a child from a school assignment or activity if that assignment is not included in approved curriculum and standards or impairs the parents “sincerely held beliefs, values or principles.”

The bill further outlines that those exemptions do not excuse the student from completing alternative assignments to receive course credit. Unlike the previous version, the bill did not give parents the opportunity to affect what is being taught to the whole class.

“I think folks listened to what happened in floor debates as well as committees and listened to testimony and really acknowledged what was being said,’‘ Baumgardner said of the new version. “It’s less useful if there’s so much conflict and so, from this standpoint, it really was response to what we heard from parents, what we heard from schools and community members.”

Despite the lessened impact of this year’s bill, and efforts to adjust language so that public education groups would be more amenable, top public education groups, including the Kansas National Education Association and Kansas Association of School Boards, remained opposed.

“Our elected school board members have told us that they don’t support the legislature mandating bureaucratic tasks that take time away from the classroom and from kids’ education,” Leah Filter, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards, said. “Unfortunately, this bill does that.”

Opponents to the bill argued it was a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, parents, they said, already had the ability to ask for their child to be pulled from an assignment they disagreed with.

“It’s an unnecessary burden on teachers and administrators,” Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Democrat, said.

But proponents say it is still necessary to outline that in law. Brittany Jones, a lobbyist for Kansas Family Voice, which backed the Legislation, said the changes were made to resolve confusion between the bill and separate legislation that sought to require all curriculum information be posted online.

A House version of the bill had combined the two policies last year.

“They’re two very different discussions, one’s a fundamental understanding of the rights parents have in the educational process and the other is a more specific application of that,” Jones said. “We wanted to make sure people understood that this is the bigger conversation that most Kansans can agree on.”

Bob Beatty, a Washburn University Political Scientist, said the push for parental rights began in COVID but has extended into culture wars over gender identity and sexual orientation. In Kansas, he said, it’s complicated for Republicans by a strong culture of support for public education.

“Even if there’s acknowledgment about the need for a parents bill of rights there is a strong worry that it has been politicized to the extent that it could harm the ability to attract teachers,” Beatty said. He noted that the policy, even if it is weaker than the original legislation, would help Republicans play to their base in primary elections.

Rep. Adam Thomas, an Olathe Republican who chairs the House Education Committee, said that even if the bill doesn’t become law he was happy with the progress made bringing public education advocates to the table.

Last year, he said, lawmakers were told the bill was too specific. This year, he said, he’s been told it’s too broad.

“You’ve got to keep the conversation going. Let’s find something that’s more palatable,” Thomas said. “There’s got to be a middle ground somewhere. And it may be the case that they just don’t want anything.”

“We’ve got to get to 84 (votes), and if we don’t we keep trying,” Thomas said, referring to the number of votes needed to override a veto in the House.

The Star’s Jenna Barackman contributed to this report.