How parental rights debate is playing out in NH


New Hampshire Public Radio

Published: 03-23-2023 6:03 PM

Republicans across the country are rallying around efforts to enshrine “parental rights” into state and federal law. In Congress, a GOP-backed measure would give parents the right to inspect all curriculum in school, speak at school board meetings, and increase their oversight over how schools handle students’ sexual orientation and gender identity.

And in New Hampshire, several Republican-sponsored proposals would codify — and in some cases expand — parents’ rights over their children’s care and education.

While Republican leaders at the State House have said the bills are a priority, it’s unclear how far the legislation will go given the tight partisan divide in the New Hampshire House. On Wednesday, four Republican lawmakers joined with the Democratic caucus to table one of the parental rights bills. After the vote, House Majority Leader Jason Osborne blamed “scare tactics and false information” for the outcome.

“Educators and parents should be partners in a child’s education, and it is not the job of school administrators sitting behind a desk to decide what gets shared with parents and what is deliberately kept from them,” Osborne said in a press release. “Sadly, today every Democrat in the House chose to support systems and secrets over parents.”

But a similar proposal is still alive in the Senate, and has the backing of the entire Senate Republican caucus, but Gov. Chris Sununu has not yet indicated whether he plans to sign it. Sununu’s spokesperson did not respond to questions from NHPR about his position on the bills as of the time this story was published on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, a coalition of advocacy groups opposed to the legislation — including the ACLU of New Hampshire, 603 Equality, faith leaders and teachers unions — have organized ongoing rallies and testimony in an effort to defeat the bills.

What’s in the parental rights legislation in New Hampshire?

Nationally, the parental rights movement has become a catchall for a variety of concerns: giving parents greater oversight over school curriculum and activities, ensuring they have the final say in health decisions like vaccines and masking, and more.

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In New Hampshire, the movement has garnered support from some parents who lament a lack of transparency from their school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others take issue with schools’ diversity and inclusion initiatives and how teachers are addressing issues of race, gender and sexual orientation.

Many of the rights outlined in the legislation pending at the New Hampshire State House are already enshrined in state or federal law, though supporters say listing them in one place makes them easier to understand.

But if passed, the legislation would make changes to how schools handle information about students’ gender identity and their right to privacy. Both the House and Senate versions of the bills would require school officials to tell parents who inquire whether their child has changed their pronouns, gender identity or name in school.

That specific provision has raised alarm among those who warn that it would endanger LGBTQ+ youth, as it could require school officials to effectively out students without their consent. New Hampshire’s child advocate, a state-appointed watchdog for child welfare, also opposes the legislation over concerns that it would disrupt important procedures and relationships for young people to report potential neglect or abuse at home.

Would the proposed parents’ rights bills make any exception to disclosing information about an LGBTQ+ student if they have concerns about acceptance and safety at home?

Yes, but the legislation says schools would have to prove that there’s a “compelling state interest” to avoid disclosing a student’s choice to change their name or pronoun. If they fail to make that case, and they don’t disclose the requested information, they could face lawsuits and fines. Critics of the bill say that the burden of proof for schools to prove that they shouldn’t disclose a student’s LGBTQ+ status is unreasonably high.

Rep. Bob Lynn, a Windham Republican who introduced an amendment during a floor debate on the House’s version of the parents’ rights bill to clarify what counts as a threat to student safety. Lynn said schools should not withhold information from parents who would be disappointed or angry about their child’s LGBTQ+ identity.

“We should not be protecting children from the ordinary things in life — the ordinary human emotions that parents express sometimes,” said Lynn, who previously served as chief justice on the New Hampshire Supreme Court. “Life is hard sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that schools should be able to keep information from parents.”

Lynn’s proposed amendment ultimately failed, and the bill was tabled. But ahead of those votes, Democratic Rep. Peter Petrigno, of Milford, warned that the legislation could expose schools to unnecessary litigation.

“I wonder if some parents will feel emboldened to take on schools for anything they believe to be improper,” Petrigno said. “Will this result in a barrage of frivolous lawsuits that school districts will have to defend at taxpayer’s expense?”

How much of this is driven by parents, and how much is driven by politicians?

A recent poll from the University of New Hampshire found that a majority of those surveyed agreed with a basic concepts of parental rights. Fifty-eight percent of respondents strongly agreed that parents have the right to be told if their minor child “is being identified by the school as being of a different gender than when their child enrolled.” But respondents were split along partisan lines on other questions, such as whether parents have the right to inspect their child’s educational curriculum.

School districts across New Hampshire have varying approaches to disclosing information about students’ gender identity and pronouns with their parents or caregivers. Supporters of the effort to require such disclosure often point to a recent situation in which the Manchester school district did not tell a mother that her child was using a different name at school. Last year, the mother sued the district; a judge dismissed the lawsuit, but many lawmakers and politicians point to this case as proof that a bill is needed to correct what they view as an overreach of schools and courts.

A parental rights bill failed in the State House last year, after Gov. Chris Sununu vowed to veto it over concerns that it could violate the state’s anti-discrimination laws, but Republican leadership has continued to highlight the issue. Political groups have put up billboards and ads in newspapers encouraging voters to contact their state representatives to support parental rights. In recent weeks, one newly launched Republican PAC, Granite Solutions, collected 1,500 signatures in support of parental rights and produced a video to rally people around the cause.

As the debate was playing in the State House, one Republican lawmaker pointed out to colleagues seated nearby that Democrats testifying against parents’ rights could provide fodder for future ads.

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