February marks the month set aside to acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Black Americans. It is also a time for reflection on the progress made and work that remains to ensure equal rights and opportunity for every individual. A seminal moment in the Civil Rights Movement came in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education, declaring that the notion established in Plessy vs. Ferguson – that separate treatment can be equal under the law – to be unconstitutional. A decade later, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. It is interesting that as we embark upon this month of reflection and celebration, we continue to struggle with many issues addressed during the Civil Rights Era.
The right to a free and equal public education is one of the most important foundational civil rights afforded by law in the United States – it represents values that we embody and aspire to achieve for the benefit of children, communities, and society overall. State and federal laws guarantee this right to each and every child. Specifically, North Carolina’s constitution guarantees that education “shall forever be encouraged” and subsequent state law guarantees that “equal opportunities shall be provided for all students.” Federal legislation prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of race, color, national origin, language, sex, religion, and disability. Additionally, North Carolina’s constitution reinforces that knowledge is necessary to create the “happiness of mankind”. How can developing the knowledge necessary for “good government and the happiness of mankind” detailed in North Carolina’s constitution be achieved through constructing barriers that discriminate against certain individuals? We must work toward inclusivity through education and diversity.
North Carolina’s Senate Bill 49, better known as the Parents’ Bill of Rights, threatens to violate students’ rights to an equal education free from discrimination, and could create school environments that are hostile and unsafe for certain students. For instance, the bill would require school staff to notify parents “prior to any changes in the name or pronoun used for a student in school records or by school personnel.” While parental involvement in the lives of their children is critically important, the reality is that fewer than 40 percent of LGBTQ+ youth live in homes that are affirming of their identities. Regardless of its intention, this bill could create dangerous environments for young people who may not have families who are willing or ready to provide the support they need.
We believe that parents have rights when participating in their child’s education; however, it cannot be at the detriment of student safety and well-being. The Parents’ Bill of Rights as currently constructed forces educators and public school units to violate students’ right to an equal public education guaranteed under the constitution by not having the ability to provide students the necessary knowledge to develop skills to participate as a productive citizen of the diverse society they will inherit as the bill inherently discriminates against certain individuals.
The bill also includes language that would restrict “instruction on gender identity, sexual activity, and sexuality” that are deemed inappropriate for children in kindergarten through fourth grade. Curriculum should be – and already is – designed to be age-appropriate. There is a difference, however, between a curriculum that is inappropriate for young children and a curriculum that is inclusive and representative of the diversity of identities, experiences, and orientations that our students and their families represent. No student, and no parent, should ever be made to feel as though their identity – who they are as individuals – is inappropriate.
The Parents’ Bill of Rights is a distraction from what is actually needed to ensure that the rights of students and their families are being met. North Carolina’s children have a constitutional right to a sound basic education – including the right to have an effective educator in every classroom, an effective principal in every school, and access to sufficient educational resources –and it is the responsibility of the state to fulfill that right. However, research and court decisions have found that students’ educational rights have been violated for decades. North Carolina is ranked 48th in the country in per-student spending on education and last in its effort to fund public schools. We are seeing the impacts of disinvestment in our schools every day. This widening opportunity gap in our state is due to inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities which impact the future success of students.
Let’s maintain focus on the real issues facing our schools. We encourage our lawmakers to focus on implementing evidence-based policies and providing the fundamental educational resources and opportunities that are necessary in order for students to be successful. Sustaining the strong economic development in our state depends on discouraging bills such as SB 49 as this type of legislation will continue to deplete our educator workforce and not allow schools to graduate students who can compete and fulfill the requirements of a growing and diverse workforce.
Links to the Two Versions of the Parents’ Bill of Rights
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