The Washington Secretary of State’s office recently certified signatures for I-2081, a so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” initiative that would allow parents to “examine” instruction materials, obtain student records, and send a written notice to opt out their kids from classroom activities. 

The initiative is essentially a spruced-up copy of this Louisiana bill from 2014, and the language is so vague that none of the experts and advocates who spoke with The Stranger know exactly what would happen if it were implemented, nor how it would conflict with existing state law. 

Experts worry I-2081’s ambiguity could harm LGBTQ kids who are not out to their parents and bury schools in enough paperwork to clog the gears of public education. Moreover, they say the bill gives parents the wrong idea about their current rights to begin with, and it could instead allow the views of conservative parents to dictate curriculum.

Let’s Go Washington (LGW), a conservative astroturf group bankrolled by Republican mega-millionaire hedge fund manager Brian Heywood, funded signature-gathering efforts for this initiative and five others that aim to repeal laws that our duly elected state representatives passed in the last few years. 

As Hannah reported in December, Heywood “mega failed” to get 11 initiatives on the 2023 ballot, but he’s been successful this year. 

If legislators in Olympia don’t pass Heywood’s initiatives this session, then this November voters will decide whether to eliminate Washington’s cap-and-trade system (which would allow big businesses to pollute for free and gut the transportation budget), repeal our capital gains tax (which would gut public education funding), make imposing an income tax harder, dramatically relax restrictions on deadly high-speed police chases, severely weaken our first-in-the-nation long-term care benefit, and, with I-2081, confuse people and mire schools in bureaucracy. 

The decision to run initiatives on these topics aims to unite different factions on the right for maximum turnout and to divide up the energy and resources of progressive opponents. As the Seattle Times reported this week, the project also serves as an onramp for Heywood’s potential gubernatorial bid. 

LGW initially offered The Stranger an interview with founder Heywood, but the spokesperson did not respond to repeated scheduling emails nor a list of 18 questions we sent Thursday afternoon. (If you’d like to clear up any of this, Heywood, my inbox is open!) 

Heywood told Crosscut last year that initiatives like his are all part of the Democratic process. But do voters know exactly what they’d be voting for? Maybe not.

First, What Are Parents Rights? 

You may have heard the phrase “parents rights” before, and you can take it to mean just that–parents having rights, and, in this case, a primary role in their child's education. 

The phrase’s power as a political tool lies in how unobjectionable that idea sounds. How can one argue with parents having rights, when data shows an engaged parent can be a positive force in a child's life? Parental involvement corresponds with higher test scores, better behavior, improved attendance, and the foundational social skills kids need to flourish in the school environment. 

But the term’s political connotation cannot go unexamined, especially with a conservative funding source.

To summarize this explainer from the Associated Press, the modern parental rights movement began in the 1990s, when evangelicals tried limiting sexual education in public schools by directing their supporters to take control of school boards. The candidates who won didn’t last long after communities fought their extreme agendas. Hat in hand, some religious conservatives began homeschooling their kids, which isn’t necessarily going awesome.

A furious resurgence of that same movement took hold in 2020. Anger over COVID mandates and teachings about race following the police murder of George Floyd grew into a rallying cry that has mutated into the anti-queer, drag-banning, get-out-of-my-bathroom, down-with-critical-race-theory juggernaut it is today.

In the midst of this moral panic that envisions schools at dark towers of CRT indoctrination and “transgenderism,” Republican-controlled states like Florida passed bills restricting classroom instruction and library books. 

Here in Washington, the State Senate unanimously passed a bill to protect libraries after residents of rural Columbia County tried and failed to shut down Dayton, WA’s only library over books on race, gender, and sexuality.

At this point, it is difficult to disentangle arguably good intentions from conservative overreach.

Back to This Initiative…

The Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) told The Stranger that, at a high-level, the conservative measure restates current law. However, the agency expressed concerns that the initiative could also allow for “human rights violations within our schools.” Pending analysis from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office and/or the Washington State Human Rights Commission, OSPI wouldn’t say more. 

Now, I’d wager most parents don’t read the Revised Code of Washington for pleasure, so odds are many may not know the rights they have already. Those parents who assume they had none of the rights listed in I-2081 might be shocked after a cursory review of the law, and they may even notice the redundancy and confusion that I-2081 would introduce. 

For instance, the initiative would grant parents the right to see their child’s discipline records, attendance records, screenings for learning disabilities, and records of vocational counseling—all electronically and free of charge. Saving a few bucks on records sounds great, but, according to the RCW, parents in Washington can already access their child's complete education record.

The initiative also requires schools to notify parents if they offer medication to their kids, unless it’s an emergency. But schools already cannot give kids medication that their parents haven’t signed off on, unless it’s an emergency. 

I-2081 goes on to protect a child’s already-protected religious beliefs. And if the parent has any suspicions about that, then, at the risk of totally embarrassing their kids, Washington parents also have the right to observe classes and school-sponsored activities as long as their presence doesn’t disrupt the learning environment. The law requires school boards to establish a procedure to accommodate them.

Potential Issues

Setting aside those redundancies, experts do foresee major problems if I-2081 goes into effect.

For instance, parents in Washington can already exempt their kids from sexual education classes, but the initiative’s language muddles which lessons teachers can excuse them from. The language in question, emphasis mine: Parents must “receive written notice and have the option to opt their child out of instruction on topics associated with sexual activity in accordance with RCW 28A.300.475, [the sex ed law]”. 

Under current law, a kid today may be able to skip out on frog dissection on account of a moral or religious objection, but a parent who doesn’t want their child reading The Diary of a Young Girl due to the sexuality probably wouldn’t have that luck. But, depending on how broadly schools interpret that language I bolded above, experts said I-2081 could give parents the ability to opt their kids out of any LGBTQ education, or from reading texts such as Romeo and Juliet because of the implied sex. 

In addition, schools would have to inform parents of surveys, assignments, and other student engagements that ask about a student’s sexuality, religion, political affiliation, and more, and provide an option to opt out. 

The initiative also gives parents the right to “examine” their student’s curriculum, which may open the door to book challenges, a growing phenomenon. The American Library Association documented nearly 1,300 challenges to books nationwide in 2022, the most since the ALA began collecting data 20 years ago. 

That trend has taken hold here in Washington. Last year, a library in Walla Walla fought parents who wanted to remove four books, including Toni Morison’s The Bluest Eye. In December, the city council in Liberty Lake, Washington took control of library policy, claimed it wasn’t about book bans, and then shot down an amendment that would have given them less control over book bans.

After looking at all those provisions, advocates worry teachers and administrative staff could be overwhelmed by the burden of new questions, paperwork, and copies of curricula they’d suddenly have to handle, spending an unknowable amount of time, energy, and money on the process. From an administrative perspective, these opt-out forms could be a logistical nightmare, and they could chill some lessons schools may teach. Not to mention, parents are not curriculum experts, and the function of public education is not to appease them.

Another provision in the initiative could increase parental access to their kids’ mental health records from school counseling sessions. For complex reasons related to the way HIPAA and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) handle school counseling, the ease with which parents can currently access those notes remains unclear. However, HIPAA does clearly protect notes from a provider in a school-based health center with staff who are not employed by the school. 

The possibility of allowing parents to see all counselor notes is enough of a red flag for Linden Jordan, a lawyer who leads PFLAG Skagit. He called this particular provision “everything.”

Session notes threaten to expose truths that kids aren’t ready to share with their parents about sexuality, gender identity, eating disorders, depression, relationships, and other problems. Those kids could even be going to school counselors to talk about problems at home, and nothing in the initiative would prevent parents from seeing those notes, either. Talking to a counselor could make a kid's disagreements with their parents worse.

Jordan believes kids, especially kids in the closet, would be less likely to go to the guidance counselor if anything they said in those sessions could follow them home. He’s lived without that support, growing up lonely and suicidal as a transgender teenager in West Virginia. 

“PFLAG’s motto is lead with love,” he said. “It's really hard to imagine less of a demonstration of love than what is going on right now, with denying these kids access to any kind of friendship, help, support.”

Manny Santiago, executive director of the Washington State LGBTQ Commission, said not every child feels safe at home and that school counselors are trained to know which information needs to be shared with parents. The wrong disclosure could have dire consequences, and it is still unclear if the school would have to report changes in names or pronouns to parents under an initiative provision that would notify parents to changes in school records.

Santiago’s own parents kicked him out at 17 when they discovered he was gay. Statistics show his experience is not uncommon. According to the Trevor Project, 28% of LGBTQ youth experience homelessness or housing instability, while 8.5% percent reported running away from home due to mistreatment over their identity. Even in a world where every parent was a good and loving parent, I-2081 assumes they would act in the best interest of their child in every situation.

“There are going to be more kids who are going to be afraid of coming out in their homes, and many of them will leave their home,” he said. “That's how we ended up with so many young queer kids on the streets.”

Kids Have Rights, Too, Actually

The strategy behind most parents rights bills is to convince people that parents don’t have rights at all.

In reality, the Supreme Court has recognized a parent’s fundamental right to the care and upbringing of their children–including their children's education–going back to the 1920s. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor even wrote in 2000 that parental rights were the oldest of our constitutional rights, not enshrined in the constitution but so fundamental that it nevertheless protected them. But the law also considers the rights of children.

Parents can’t decide not to educate their children, or to work them in factories and deny them life-saving medical care. That logic backs policies that allow kids to access reproductive care or mental health counseling without their parent’s consent.

Ascertaining the limit on parental rights is where Anne Dailey’s work comes in. The University of Connecticut law professor has published articles, including The New Parental Rights and The New Law of The Child, that examine those boundaries. After decades of working in family law, it became clearer and clearer to her that children were missing from discussions about their own lives–that it was a binary struggle between parents and the state for control, she said.

Dailey argues that the state has a vested interest in supporting children as individuals who form identities independent from their parents at a young age.

While initiatives like I-2081 are partly driven by a sincere desire for parents to know what their kids are learning, those measures can also interfere with a child’s right to access ideas, as affirmed in several Supreme Court cases beginning in 1982. Dailey is concerned that polarization does not allow for the kind of nuanced thinking we need around protecting children’s interests.

“These statutes would trigger for me concerns about children's First Amendment rights to be exposed to what we think of as a diversity of ideas,” she said. “So these are interests that are independent of the family in a way. It's the children's future. It's their rights as future citizens in a pluralistic democracy. And those interests need to be balanced when we're assessing these kinds of very absolutist parental rights.”