TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate accomplished the first of two steps Tuesday required to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of a parental bill of rights for K-12 public education that encouraged skepticism of classroom instructional materials and challenges to books on the shelf in school libraries.
This legislative rebuttal to the Democratic governor’s veto of Senate Bill 58 was approved 27-12 by the Senate, the minimum necessary to enact an override. That sent the measure to the Kansas House, which also would need a two-thirds majority to complete the process of trumping the governor. Timing of a House vote was unclear.
The bill affirming the right of parents to control religious upbringing, make medical decisions, review student records, scrutinize classroom materials, speak at school board meetings and contest the use of library books was grounded in longstanding objections by social conservatives to administration of public schools serving more than 450,000 students.
The COVID-19 health emergency was impetus for protests after Kelly and other education officials pivoted schools to a remote learning model as coronavirus infections surged in 2020. Societal frustration with pandemic restrictions gave Republicans an opening to press for the educational bill of rights opposed by Democrats. Contents of the bill of rights resemble initiatives introduced or approved in other states.
Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said the Kansas version of the educational bill of rights amplifying the dominance of parents was necessary because local and state officials brushed aside criticism and suggestions from parents.
Interruption of the routine in-class approach to teaching in Kansas wasn’t a substantial obstacle for some students but it contributed to impactful academic and emotional challenges for some students, she said.
“If we, in our state, are going to be serious about public funds that are supporting our public schools then our parents must always have a seat at the table,” Baumgardner said.
Sen. Mike Thompson, the Shawnee Republican who also supported the override, said the bill reinforced the primacy of parents in shaping the substance of what was taught in public schools.
He said some school district administrators were operating in defiance of community best interests and had gone so far as to approve placement of pornographic books on library shelves.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to codify these sort of rights which already exist in the constitution of the United States but are totally being ignored,” Thompson said.
Sen. Pat Pettey, a retired educator and Democrat from Kansas City, said the idea of parents scrutinizing every piece of instructional material in more than 1,300 buildings statewide or getting more than 280 school boards to pull books from libraries didn’t sound like a wise means of improving public education.
“I thought that we had decided some time ago that we weren’t in the business of banning opportunities to learn,” Pettey said.
Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said the governor rightfully vetoed the bill because it was a problematic overstep by the Legislature of authority held by elected members of the Kansas State Board of Education and elected members of more than 280 locally elected school across the state.
She said part of the problem with discussing this type of legislation was 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.
The Legislature ought to be devoting precious time and energy to creating a framework that supported public school teachers and delivering a curriculum that inspired students to dive into subjects, said Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Leavenworth Democrat who also voted to sustain Kelly’s veto.
“This bill creates division in our schools,” he said. “This bill incentivizes book bans.”
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