By Jasmine Hall
Wyoming Tribune Eagle Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Parental Rights in Education measure resurrected in Education Committee

 

August 10, 2023



CHEYENNE — State lawmakers on the Joint Education Committee spent most of Tuesday considering a controversial bill that was resurrected from the previous legislative session.

Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, reintroduced the Parental Rights in Education bill that was sponsored in the spring by Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, and mirrors legislation passed by the Florida Legislature. Critics have called it the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and an attempt at LGBTQ+ erasure, while supporters consider it a step in the right direction for parent empowerment.

This difference in opinion was witnessed by legislators during nearly three hours of public testimony before a vote on whether to move the bill forward to the committee’s next meeting. Multiple motions were introduced, but the committee ended the meeting by splitting the bill in two after both constitutional concerns and one-subject requirements were brought to their attention.

In the end, only one bill was pushed ahead by the committee.

The surviving version of the Parental Rights in Education bill keeps the majority of the draft legislation intact. It specifies procedures and requirements for K-12 school districts to immediately provide parents notice of information regarding their student’s mental, emotional and physical well-being, and the school’s ability to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for the student.

If approved by the full Legislature during the 2024 budget session, parents and guardians would not be prohibited from accessing any of their student’s education and health records maintained by the local school district. Also, school districts would be directed not to adopt policies or procedures that impact a parent’s right or encourage a student to withhold information from their family.

An opt-in system would also be created for questionnaires or health screenings instead of opt-out, and each school district would notify parents and guardians of all the health care services provided to the student and allow them to decline those, as well.

Amendments can be brought to this version of the bill, which was carried over to the next meeting in November, and the Joint Education Committee could vote to sponsor the legislation for the upcoming session.

However, the second bill was killed in a 6-6 vote, and could instead be brought as an individually sponsored bill.

The lines extracted from the original draft and moved into this separate bill would have set limits on what teachers could teach in the classroom.

According to page 2 of the draft bill, “No school teacher shall permit classroom instruction by teachers or any other person on sexual orientation and gender identity: for students in grades kindergarten through three; or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with standards established by the state board of education.”

This section was at the heart of the debate in both public testimony and between lawmakers, and legal concerns were highlighted by the Legislative Service Office.

LSO Operations Administrator Tania Hytrek shared a memo with the committee that included legal analysis on how the bill may be challenged on grounds such as protected speech, due process and equal protection. While the LSO educates lawmakers on these possibilities, it “takes no position on the legality or constitutionality of the bill draft or its subsequent application should the bill be adopted.”

“Here, it is possible that the bill draft may be challenged as violating the First Amendment by impermissibly restricting protected speech and expression based on content and viewpoint by: chilling students, school personnel, and others from disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity; and chilling students, school personnel, and others from using speech that reveals or conforms with a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity,” Hytrek wrote in her memo.

“For example, a student (or the student’s family) may challenge the law as prohibiting the completion of assignments (i.e., a family tree) or as prohibiting the student from saying anything about the student’s family structure. While students do not ‘shed their constitutional rights’ to free speech at the school door, the rights of students must be applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment.”

Hytrek pointed out that some of these issues are based on plaintiffs’ arguments in lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s law, which contains almost the exact same language as in Wyoming’s version of the Parental Rights in Education bill.

These concerns were weighed by lawmakers, but the separate bill including this language will not go any further in the committee. Some said they were already frustrated that hours were spent on legislation that wasn’t an interim topic assigned by the Legislature’s Management Council, and K-12 mental health was cut from the August meeting agenda to make time for Parental Rights in Education.

In the final discussion of the day, legislators such as Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie; Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie; and Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, pushed for the committee to work through the bill — including a vote on splitting it.

The entire bill was almost moved forward to the next meeting without any amendments Tuesday, as Education Committee co-Chairman Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, said better work would be done in the future, with more time and rest.

“I think all these people came here expecting us to make a motion, not to punt this down the road,” Brown said. “I’ll just speak straight from the cuff here: What a waste of time, if we sat here and listened to everybody to punt this down the road one way or the other.”

This story was published on August 9, 2023.

 
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