Pennsylvania weighs parental bill of rights as gender, race issues flare in schools

(The Center Square) – Punctuated by claps, cheers, jeers and a call to order, the Senate State Government Committee held a public hearing on a proposed parental bill of rights that raised questions…

(The Center Square) – Punctuated by claps, cheers, jeers and a call to order, the Senate State Government Committee held a public hearing on a proposed parental bill of rights that raised questions of local control, race, and gender issues.

Senate Bill 996 is sponsored by Republican gubernatorial nominee Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Chambersburg.

“Presently, Pennsylvania does not have a state statute that explicitly defines and protects parental rights as fundamental rights. Twelve other states currently recognize these rights,” Mastriano wrote in a legislative memo. “My legislation will make it clear in statute that the Commonwealth or any of its political subdivisions may not infringe on the fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of his or her minor child without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest, narrowly tailored, and not otherwise served by a less restrictive means.”

The bill would also ensure parent’s can access and review “all school records related to their child, a right to review all instructional materials used throughout the school year, and the right to opt out their child from certain curriculum that the parent finds to be objectionable or harmful.”

Mastriano described the bill as ensuring parents “are not swept aside by an overbearing bureaucracy.”

The committee heard testimony from parents concerned over how school districts handled pandemic-era remote learning, mask mandates, gender issues and transparency on school policies for personal pronouns.

“Parental rights are still under attack in Pennsylvania,” said Megan Brock, a mother in Bucks County. “The ACLU is arguing that teachers have a right to keep secrets with students from their parents,” referring to a policy of not alerting parents if a child wants to use pronouns different from their gender at birth. “This is dangerous to students and parents and it needs to be stopped.”

The ACLU filed a lawsuit earlier in October over the issue, alleging LGBT discrimination.

Much of the hearing focused on school gender policies and content.

“Through Zoom classes, we parents heard with our own ears our children being indoctrinated with racial division,” said Maria Ault, a mother in the Southern Lehigh School District. “We saw the incorporation of gender ideologies that do not align with scientific facts and were against absolute truth by lying to the students that a boy can be a girl and a girl can be a boy.”

“Why are the schools focusing so much on race and gender instead of excellent-quality education?” Ault asked. “Why are the public schools not working with parents for the benefit of the child?”

Sen. Sharif Street, D-Philadelphia, criticized the Republican-controlled committee’s choice of panelists and the lack of input from Democrats.

“I agree that we do need to teach real history,” Street said. “What I’m suggesting is that our children need to be prepared to deal with the challenges that life happens … and that needs to be taught at a young age. Yes, you don’t need — critical race theory isn’t for elementary schools, it’s for law schools … but discussions around race need to happen at — as soon as kids start interacting with one another.”

Mastriano argued for an emphasis on what students and Americans share, rather than what makes them different.

“Yes, it’s important to acknowledge our differences, but it’s more important to focus in on what brings us together and what we have in common in the schools, on sports teams, in the army, and elsewhere. And I think things go along with less friction,” Mastriano said. “I’ve noticed in organizations where differences are pointed out … they were broken organizations and they didn’t get the job done. The ones that focused on commonality were very successful in tough environments.”

Later, Mastriano argued divisions over what to teach students about race, gender, and sexuality distracted schools from their core goals.

“Social engineering needs to end, it’s time to focus back to the basics,” Mastriano said. “Teach kids how to think, not what to think.”

In his closing comments, Street criticized the hearing’s structure and harkened back to the Civil Rights Era.

“Today we heard from one side; we heard from the proponents of the legislation and not its opponents,” Street said. “There are other mothers who have other perspectives. There were parents in 1954 of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that passionately did not want their children to go to school with black children. They passionately believed that.”

“We certainly need to protect the fundamental rights of parents,” he said. “But there must also be limitations. We must not allow the tyranny of the majority, and we must not allow LGBTQ students to be oppressed. We must not allow the exclusion of any discussions around race to be eliminated from class when we know that children of color in particular have to deal with race each and every day they live.”

Mastriano’s bill remains in committee, awaiting a vote before it could receive first consideration in the full Senate.