Ray Carter | September 29, 2021
Parental rights laws need teeth, advocates warn
While Oklahoma law provides parents with significant rights in education, parents and advocates told lawmakers that schools can ignore the law because it does not impose significant penalties for noncompliance.
“I know nobody likes to do that, but unfortunately we’re in a climate where there has to be some teeth to some of this legislation,” said Liza Greve, executive director of Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights.
“There is no mechanism for parents to be able to enforce their rights,” said Kim Richey, senior education fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.
Another parent advocate asked lawmakers to reform state law regarding special education to reduce the power disparity that exists between parents and the public schools that are supposed to serve their children, but often don’t.
“What I’m asking is that the state take a stance and put the burden of proof where the money goes, and that’s with schools,” said Melanie Berry, a parent and special-needs teacher. “I don’t know that that would cost the state anything. Why wouldn’t we ask the schools who receive those funds to be accountable to the students that are sitting in their classrooms every day?”
All three spoke before the House Children, Youth, and Family Services Committee during a legislative study on “evaluating the protections of parents and caregivers” requested by Rep. Danny Williams, R-Seminole, and Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle.
Richey noted there have been reports from public schools across Oklahoma where children have been required to engage in lessons that include identifying if they belong to a dominant or subordinate culture and creating “identity maps” that include their racial and gender identities, including whether they are transgender or nonbinary.
Under Oklahoma’s Parents’ Bill of Rights law, parents have the right to access school curriculum, including all textbooks and lesson plans. The law also allows parents to “opt out” their children from some lessons or projects.
While Richey said that law is more robust than the laws in most states, she said it lacks teeth and schools must face meaningful penalties and sanctions if the law is to provide its maximum benefit.
Richey said state law could be amended to require that parents “opt in” a child before a student can participate in many programs or specific lessons, rather than the current “opt out” system. She said the current system requires parents to have advance knowledge of course content that is not always readily available.
“Parents have to know what is going on in order to opt their child out of a particular activity, and if they don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know whether to opt them out,” Richey said. “So oftentimes, they tend to be at a disadvantage.”
While some schools are doing a good job at addressing core academics, Greve said parents report other schools are instead “focusing on some of the social issues or some of the extracurricular activities when they’re still struggling in those basic areas.”
She said when even a handful of schools refuse to comply with state law, it emboldens other districts to do the same.
Greve also encouraged lawmakers to require an “opt-in” process along with meaningful penalties for noncompliance.
“We definitely need to add more consequences to some of the things we have,” Greve said.
Richey suggested schools should be required to provide advance notification to parents when programs deal with sex, morality, religion, race, gender, gender identity, social-emotional learning (SEL), or diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).
SEL and DEI programs have gained notoriety for their incorporation of Critical Race Theory concepts that advocate in favor of de facto racial discrimination and similar concepts. While SEL materials were once largely noncontroversial, Richey noted that SEL programs have shifted in recent years to material that “advances a particular view on social justice and on school climate and on culture.”
Of nearly 700,000 students in Oklahoma public schools in the 2018-2019 school year, 16.6 percent were classified as receiving special education services, Berry noted.
In too many instances, she said schools do not provide needed services and use the power of the state to stymie parents’ objections.
When parents conclude a student is not meeting the goals jointly established by both parents and school officials through a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), the parents have little power to get the school to improve, Berry noted.
“The school gets to make the final decision, which unfortunately, generally, is in the school’s favor,” Berry said.
When there is a disagreement between school officials and parents, she noted most parents are not experts in special-education law while schools literally pay attorneys with taxpayer funds to fight the parents.
“We have to prove that the school didn’t do their job,” Berry said. “That means we have to become our own attorney, a doctor, a psychologist to interpret the results of those critical evaluations, a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist, an assistant technology expert. We have to research and learn all the academic instructional programs that the schools use with our children, and we have to be able to question and know and respond to all of those things.”
As a result, she said schools essentially place parents “in front of a firing squad” during disputes.
“The burden of proof should fall on the people who are responsible and are literally paid to do that job,” Berry said. “They’re receiving a lot of the state’s budget and a lot of the federal budget to educate our children.”
While schools receive additional funds for students in special education, Berry said many districts provide little in additional services, which effectively allows those districts to profiteer off special-education students.
“Is that happening? Absolutely,” Berry said in a separate interview. “For instance, this happens a lot: A student is identified, meaning they’ve gone through a battery of assessments. You have loads of documentation to show that the student has a need in a specific area. And then a school will turn around in the next breath and put the child on an IEP and monitor them. Well, you’ve already been monitoring for x-amount of years. That’s why we decided there’s an issue. They’re receiving money to literally just push papers and do a couple of reports.”
And parents who object to how schools are treating children with special needs may face far more than rejection in a bureaucratic process.
“The other condition facing parents is retaliation, and I can promise you it is real,” Berry told lawmakers.
One of the most notorious and public instances of school retaliation occurred in 2011 when the Jenks and Union school districts sued the parents of children with special needs who qualified for state scholarships to attend private schools as part of the Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarships for Students with Disabilities program.
In suing the parents rather than the state to challenge the law, the schools’ effort was widely understood to be an attempt to bankrupt the families of children with special needs, such as autism.
The Oklahoma Supreme Court ultimately tossed the lawsuit out of court because the districts did not even have standing to file the lawsuit, and justices expressly noted “the parents are clearly not the proper parties against whom to assert these constitutional challenges.”
Similarly, last March, a parent in Tulsa Public Schools produced documentation showing that his son’s teacher refused to abide by the boy’s IEP and even engaged in activities known to be detrimental to the boy’s mental health. The youth had been diagnosed with autism, multi-personality disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, and sleep anxiety.
“What I’m asking shouldn’t cost the state any additional money,” Berry said. “Accountability is what I’m asking for.”
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.