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Democrats fail to derail Senate GOP’s education bill of rights for K-12 public schools

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Republican champion of measure: ‘I don’t see anything ugly. I don’t see the bullying’

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TOPEKA — Sen. Cindy Holscher opposed legislation carving into state law an education bill of rights guaranteeing public school parents the ability to conduct prior review of all curriculum materials, potentially censor or banish library books and begin laying the foundation of civil rights challenges.

The Overland Park Democrat’s irreverence for contents of Senate Bill 496 led to her proposing an amendment requiring any of the 165 state legislators to volunteer for one week in a public school or consult with six teaching professionals before introducing a bill that would influence education funding or curriculum. Her amendment was ruled not germane to the bill placing in state law a dozen or so parental rights related to education.

“We seem to have a plethora of bills this session, again, that seem to have a disconnect with the reality of what’s happening in our public schools,” Holscher said.

She said the problem could be that as few as five of 40 senators and less than 20 of 125 representatives had children enrolled in Kansas’ public elementary or secondary schools.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, the Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said she didn’t need to volunteer in a school classroom to understand the necessity of affirming in law the key role of parents in educating children. She said local school boards had improperly limited speech rights of disgruntled parents, including Salina residents unhappy with library books containing profanity, vulgarity and material inappropriate to be read aloud in an adult setting.

She said the Senate bill also would guarantee parents the right to see their child’s educational and medical files in possession of school districts. Audits by legislative staff have revealed Kansas had school districts with extremely weak computer security systems to guard that private information, she said.

“When I read this bill of rights,” Baumgardner said, “I don’t see anything ugly. I don’t see the bullying. What we hear, in some ways I think, from fearmongers is that this is going to be the destruction of public education in our state. It is not.”

The bill was scheduled for a final vote Tuesday in the Senate, while the House has been working on an alternative version of a parental bill of rights.

Brittany Jones, of the faith-based Kansas Family Voice, previously told Baumgartner’s committee the bill would leave no doubt parents had the right to direct educational, moral and religious upbringing of their children. She said the legislation should be a wake-up call for parents who should become more informed of instructional classroom and library materials, speak out more at public school board meetings and do more to defend anti-discrimination provisions of federal civil rights law, she said.

Opponent Michael Poppa, of the Mainstream Coalition, said the bill was created by external groups seeking an outsized role in shaping K-12 education policy in Kansas. He said the bill created a platform for banning books, and urged lawmakers to “please burn this bill.”

Some requirements that would be imposed on educators by the Senate bill have been adopted by a portion of school districts, but compliance wasn’t universal. If the legislation survived the session, school districts would be expected to develop policies adhering to the bill of rights.

The bill, introduced in February by Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita, resembled legislation offered in other states touching on issues related to vaccines, inclusive education, culture war and treatment of history. Erickson, who spent about 20 years in public education, said opponents denouncing the bill were unintentionally making a case for why Kansas should make the school system more transparent.

Lenexa Sen. Dinah Sykes, the chamber’s Democratic leader, said parents unquestionably had a central role in education of their children. But, she said, the bill advocated by Baumgardner, Erickson and other GOP members of the Senate wasn’t warranted.

“This bill is not a parents’ bill of rights. This bill is a bully’s bill of demands,” Sykes said. “Children deserve an honest and accurate education that enables them to lean from our past and help create a better future. This bill is opening the door for politicians banning books and curriculum simply because some people find them uncomfortable.”

Baumgardner said the movement for transparency was about parents trying to figure out what direction the state’s public schools were headed. She said the bill make clear public school educators had no business interfering with religious training or beliefs of students. She said school officials shouldn’t discourage students from referring to Christmas break when teachers called it winter break.

“There are children that have religious beliefs,” Baumgardner said. “When we’re talking about December 25, we’re talking about Christmas.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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