by Dr. Robert Luebke
Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
In response to endless fights over school closures and growing concerns about indoctrination and politicized curricula, new organizations seeking to reassert parental rights have emerged at the local, state, and national levels in North Carolina and across the country. While these are encouraging developments, moving this effort forward requires vigilance and greater participation by parents.
Here are three steps North Carolina parents can take to ensure they control how their children are raised and educated.
This step might seem intuitive, but parents need to understand what school boards actually do. According to the North Carolina General Statutes (Chapter 115C), school boards are responsible for ensuring that schools deliver “access to a sound, basic education.” School boards provide general supervision of all functions pertaining to public schools (e.g., teacher pay, curriculum, and staffing), enforce and execute school law, and also work to ensure that the administration of schools is accomplished efficiently and economically.
Although party identity or registration is no guarantee of a candidate’s outlook or positions, Republicans have generally been more sympathetic to the themes of parental and individual rights than Democrats. Recent election developments have been encouraging in this regard.
Last November, 83 of the 115 school districts held elections. While Republicans lost control of one school board (Macon County, which went to split control), they held on to 47 of 48 Republican majority boards. The number of Democrat-controlled school boards declined from 33 to 25, while the number of split-control boards increased from two to five (split control means an equal number of Democrats, Republicans, or unaffiliated board members). Republicans also flipped six school districts formerly controlled by Democrats. After the final results were in, in the 83 districts that held elections, the number of Republican-controlled school boards increased from 48 to 53.
Last fall’s school board election results represented an affirmation for many who favor parental rights and depoliticizing schools. Concerned parents must continue to engage with school board members, support them in their work, and work to ensure they are true to the values that helped them get elected.
Supporting parental rights legislation is another area that can propel this movement. FutureEd, an organization affiliated with Georgetown University, identified 84 bills in 26 states that were introduced last year (2021-22) to strengthen parents’ rights in schools.
Last year North Carolina lawmakers from both sides of the aisle filed bills to strengthen parental rights. The bill that received the most attention was House Bill 755. Among other things, HB 755 stipulated that every parent has the right to make decisions concerning his or her child’s physical, mental, and emotional health and has the right to direct how and where his or her child is educated. The bill also requires transparency when dealing with the child’s teachers and school. HB 755 passed the Senate but failed to get to the floor for a vote in the House.
Because Parents’ Bill of Rights (PBR) legislation enshrines many existing parental rights regarding the health, privacy, and safety of children and codifies many rights and responsibilities that many parents take for granted, PBR legislation is growing in popularity.
A May 2022 Civitas Poll found 57 percent of respondents supported passage of a Parents’ Bill of Rights legislation in North Carolina, with only 24 percent of respondents opposed. New PBR legislation is expected to be introduced when the General Assembly convenes this spring. Parents can aid this effort by supporting the legislation and also working to have local boards of education adopt similar provisions.
A third and final way to strengthen parental rights is by working to ensure local school districts spend federal Covid-19 relief funds wisely. North Carolina has received over $6.2 billion in federal Covid relief funding. To date, our schools have spent about $3.8 billion on Covid relief, while about $2.4 billion of those funds remains unspent.
By law, local school districts are required to spend at least 20 percent of Covid funds addressing learning loss. Are local school boards complying? About $1.7 billion on school spending — or about 47 percent of all spending so far — has gone toward salaries. About $967 million of that amount was paid in bonus pay. North Carolina Department of Public Instruction data shows that local education agencies have spent only about $31 million — less than 1 percent of all Covid funds spent statewide so far — on “Tutorial Pay.”
This is wrong. By closely tracking how school districts are spending Covid relief funds, parents can hold them accountable. Since most districts still have significant amounts of this funding available, parents can also help influence how those dollars will be spent — keeping the pressure on schools to ensure those funds truly go to address learning loss and other priorities outlined in districts’ Covid relief spending plans.
School closures, politicized classrooms, and social-justice issues have fueled a parents’ rights movement in North Carolina and nationally. This movement offers a healthy check on an educational system that increasingly does not reflect the values of the parents and students it serves.
While much progress has been made, actively engaging with school board members, supporting parents’ rights legislation, and monitoring how schools’ Covid relief funds are spent can strengthen these efforts and ensure the future is bright for those who care about improving public education in North Carolina.