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WA lawmakers hear debate on parental rights initiative

Republican-backed initiative would require material to be available for parental review

Supporters of the six citizen initiatives pending before the Legislature in the 2024 session gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, Feb. 23. (Bill Lucia/Washington State Standard)
By Grace Deng Washington State Standard

Washington lawmakers on Wednesday heard mixed testimony on a Republican-backed initiative to bolster the voices of parents in the state’s K-12 public schools. 

Initiative 2081, known as a “parents’ bill of rights,” would require a range of school materials, such as textbooks, curriculum and a child’s medical records, to be easily available for review by parents. It would also give notice to parents and allow them to opt their child out of assignments and other activities involving questions about a child’s sexual experiences or their family’s religious beliefs. 

The initiative comes as the socially conservative “parental rights” movement, which aims to restrict schools’ abilities to teach about gender, sexuality and race without parental consent, has gained influence across the United States

A total of 158 people signed in to testify and 6,477 signed in either for or against the initiative. Most who signed in, either as testifiers or not, were for the initiative. 

Republican support

Much of what the initiative includes is already law in Washington, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. But Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who wrote Initiative 2081, said the initiative is supposed to clarify existing law “and let parents know in plain, straightforward terms what they can expect, what they can do, what they can know.” 

“The point of this initiative is to engage parents and grandparents and legal guardians in the upbringing of their children,” Walsh said during the hearing. 

Walsh has also written five other initiatives that may make their way to the ballot this November if the Legislature does not approve them. All six are funded by a local conservative hedge fund executive, Brian Heywood, who attended the hearing but was not given the chance to testify. 

Chad Magendanz, a Republican running for the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, also attended the hearing but wasn’t given an opportunity to speak. 

“I wanted to testify as a teacher, and [how] the impact that some of the recent policies have had kind of had a chilling effect, honestly, about how we communicate with parents,” Magendanz told the Standard, referring to guidance from OSPI to withhold information about pronouns or gender identity from parents unless a child gives consent. 

House and Senate committees held Wednesday’s hearing jointly.

In anticipation of a potentially tumultuous audience, chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, began the hearing with a lengthy explanation of House rules and decorum. 

Santos then turned the mic over to Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, chair of the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee, who said the initiative could be “one more tool” to help parents understand their rights and directed the public to a booklet of existing parental rights put together by legislative staff. 

“We all know that family members are every child’s first teachers,” Wellman said. “I think we can agree that creating an educational system that welcomes and embraces parents and guardians as partners in the education of their children is crucial.”

Educators, parents testify

The Washington Education Association, which is the union that represents school teachers, the Washington State PTA, which is the state’s largest child advocacy group, and Oasis Youth Center, which advocates for LGBTQ+ youth in the Pierce County area, said they were glad to hear the initiative did not impact existing law. 

However, the three groups worried the initiative was confusing and could cause anxiety among LGBTQ+ youth and other marginalized groups. 

“Should you pass this legislation and initiative, WEA wants to ensure students feel safe in their schools and their learning needs are met,” said Nasue Nishida, a lobbyist for the Washington Education Association. 

The concern about confusing language was echoed by the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, as well as Lisa Keating, president of the Tacoma Public Schools Board, who asked the Legislature to clarify language in the initiative about mental health to balance the needs of students in crisis and informing parents about their children. 

Conservative groups who testified in support framed the initiative as an issue of keeping politics out of the classroom and ensuring parents have a say in raising their children. 

“I speak to you as the mother of a child who had a plan for suicide down on paper. Neither her counselor, her teacher, or her administrator told her father and I that she intended to kill herself,” said Joy Gjersvold with the Conservative Ladies of Washington. “We saved our daughter, not the school system.”

Jennifer Heine-Withee, with the Family Policy Institute, listed stories of parents who felt their wishes were ignored by teachers and schools across the state, including children being taught about race, pronouns and sexuality. 

“[A] father told me ‘I’ve been disenfranchised from my daughters, because my daughters were taught that white men were the problem in this country,’” Heine-Withee said. 

A Highline school board member, Melissa Petrini, and the Washington State School Directors’ Association also testified in support, calling the partnership between parents and districts important for a child’s development. 

Standard reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. 

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