State Board of Education approves parent rights regulations

Education , Culture & the Family

Ray Carter | March 24, 2023

State Board of Education approves parent rights regulations

Ray Carter

Citing their obligation to enforce existing state laws, members of the State Board of Education adopted regulations bolstering parents’ rights to review their child’s classroom materials and school-library content, and banning school officials from withholding information about a child from parents.

School districts that fail to comply with the regulations could have their accreditation downgraded.

The Oklahoma State Department of Education received a significant amount of public comment on the proposed regulations in the days leading up to the board meeting and heard from members of the public for roughly an hour prior to the vote.

Some opponents claimed the board lacked the legal authority to enact regulations on the two issues. But Bryan Cleveland, general counsel at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said the regulations enforce and comply with existing state laws as well as the Oklahoma Constitution, and referenced a recent Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling he said bolstered that position.

“Comments that the board should not address accreditation are simply comments that the board should not enforce educational-quality rules at all,” Cleveland said. “If a rule is worth passing, it is worth enforcing.”

One set of regulations enforces provisions of the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” already in state law. The associated OSDE regulation states, “Parents’ rights include the right to direct the education of their minor children, to object to public schools imposing unwanted instruction on questions of sex, morality, or religion; and additional rights applicable to minor children within public schools of this state.”

The regulation also states that the parental right “to inspect classroom materials shall extend to any Sex or Sexuality education material” and parents may withdraw their child from those lessons.

In addition, the regulations say, “No School district, and no employee of the district or its schools, shall encourage, coerce, or attempt to encourage or coerce a minor child to withhold information from the child’s Parent(s) or guardian(s).” School officials are also required to disclose to a child’s parents “any information” regarding “material changes reasonably expected to be important to parents regarding their child’s health, social, or psychological development, including Identity information.”

Referencing public comments received from opponents, Cleveland noted, “The department has received numerous comments suggesting that parents are presumed dangerous unless cleared as safe by school employees when state law establishes the opposite presumption. Parents have the fundamental right to control the education of their children and school employees are subservient to that fundamental directive.”

Nationally, several schools have come under fire after it was discovered school officials were encouraging a child to transition to another gender without parental knowledge.

Until recently, the Oklahoma Education Association’s website directed teachers to “Schools In Transition: A Guide for Supporting Transgender Students in K-12 Schools,” a document produced by the National Education Association and likeminded groups.

The guidebook advised teachers that if a student’s parents may not support a male child identifying as a girl, or vice versa, the educator should try to keep parents out of the loop as school officials support social transition in the school setting.

Cleveland said state law does not allow school officials to withhold such information from parents.

“State law reserves the right to hide information from parents to law-enforcement personnel alone,” Cleveland said.

Shanna Lakin, a parent who said she has worked for 17 years in law enforcement, supported the rules, telling the board that her “biggest concern” was the potential that school officials might feel free to keep “information from parents regarding their children.”

“I’ve unfortunately seen too many bad things happen to children,” Lakin said.

But one speaker opposed the requirement for school officials to communicate with parents.

Nicole McAfee, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, a group that advocates for transgender causes, objected to the requirement that teachers inform parents when children indicate they believe they are transgender.

“You have the lives of transgender, two spirit, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming youth before you,” McAfee said. “And if you advance these rules, there will be young people who will die.”

Erika Wright, who oversees the Oklahoma Rural Schools Coalition Facebook group, called for Walters to be impeached if the regulations were adopted, claiming the board did not have the authority to approve them.

Another set of rules approved by the board dealt with school library materials.

The regulations require each Oklahoma school district to annually report to the Oklahoma State Department of Education a complete listing of all library books, and state that no school library “shall have available to minor students any Pornographic materials or Sexualized content.”

Schools would be required to have a written policy for reviewing the educational suitability and age-appropriate nature of any material in a library and for receiving and responding to complaints.

The regulations define “pornographic” to mean “depictions or descriptions of sexual conduct which are patently offensive as found by the average person applying contemporary community standards, considering the youngest age of students with access to the material,” and materials that “taken as a whole, have as the dominant theme an appeal to prurient interest in sex.” The regulations also apply to “sexualized content” that is “not strictly Pornographic but otherwise contains excessive sexual material in light of the youngest age of students with access to said material.”

Prior to approval of the rules, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters displayed images and text from several books he said have been found in Oklahoma public-school libraries, including Gender Queer, Let’s Talk About It, Flamer, and Lawn Boy. The images and text displayed included depictions of oral sex, anal sex, and masturbation. Most of those materials were visual depictions.

Walters said these samples represent the type of school-library materials that have caused parents to voice concern.

“I have yet to meet the parent who wants to ban Huckleberry Finn. I have yet to meet the parent who wants to ban To Kill a Mockingbird,” Walters said. “So the reality is all of these groups, these radicals that are not aligned with Oklahoma values, have pushed that view. They have lied to you. They have told you that this is about banning books. That is outrageous.”

He said parents who object to the displayed materials are justified in doing so.

“This is an attack not only on your children, it’s an attack on your family, on the values of this country, on the values of this state,” Walters said. “I don’t care if this was just in one classroom in the state, that is inappropriate for any child in the state of Oklahoma to have in their school libraries. Parents are under attack. Our values are under attack.”

E’Lena Ashley, a member of the Tulsa school board, spoke in support of the regulations and said many parents are concerned about sexualization of children at school.

“Keep the main thing the main thing, which is education,” Ashley said. “Reading. Writing. Academics. Math. STEM. These are the things that we want to see our children actually learn in classrooms.”

Gabe Woolley, a fourth-grade teacher in the Tulsa Public Schools district, supported the regulations, particularly stressing that an “opt in” system should be used in which parents proactively allow their children to attend sexual-education lessons understanding what material will be taught.

“I don’t agree with a lot of these agendas that are being pushed,” Woolley said, “and I will say from my personal experience, a lot of these agendas are coming in from partnerships the districts are making.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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.

Loading Next