Parental Rights in the Heartland

INCIDENT: In Wichita, the school board adopted unanimously a policy that allows parents to inspect teaching materials, such as films and teachers’ manuals, and requires “active written consent” of the parent before a student can participate in an activity in which personal information is requested.

“Personal information” is defined to include facts about the student’s or the student’s family’s political affiliations, mental and psychological problems, sexual behavior and sexual attitudes, privileged or confidential relationships, income, or self-incriminating behavior. One parent, who pushed for the “parental rights” policy . . . said to board members reviewing the policy, “I know why the district lost two of my children. Safety and declining academics are certainly important factors in those decisions. But schools getting into personal issues . . . is also a factor.” The board member who proposed the policy said he would like to see it strengthened in the future, but said, “I’m satisfied for now.”

The “incident” above is from People for the American Way’s annual report “Attacks on the Freedom to Learn” (1996). I am the parent quoted in the passage. The school board member who proposed the policy is my friend Marty Marshall who helped push the policy through to its final, unanimous passage. “People want us to concentrate on academic-related subjects, not behavior-related subjects,” said Marshall.

The need for a policy became evident when such questions as these appeared in the Kansas outcome-based health education guidelines: “During the past twelve months, did you make a specific plan about how you would attempt suicide? With how many persons have you had sexual intercourse in your life?”

None of us imagined that supporting parental involvement would be seen by some as an “assault” on learning, but almost every education-related issue turns into an ideological battleground between the political left and right—”progressives” vs. “traditionalists.” Research, diversity, and public opinion do not matter in these debates. The Wichita policy would have had no effect on any student whose parent had no objection to their answering personal questions in the classroom. For some, a solution to allow parental choice was not acceptable. Only political correctness matters when engaging in combat with the educational bureaucracy known as “The Blob.”

“What basis could there be for objecting to the . . . policy other than an opinion that too much parental influence over the education of children is a dangerous thing?” asked Dr. Chuck Kriel, spokesman for Project Educate.

Not long ago, getting such a policy through the Wichita school board would have been impossible. Officials who supported the “we know better than you” sentiment so commonly held by members of The Blob dominated the seven-member board.

That began to change in 1995 when Marshall and Chip Gramke made their first bids for public office. They met on the campaign trail and discovered that they shared many pro-family views. They quickly became so closely aligned that the Wichita media dubbed them “The Boys.”

Their conservative views endeared the two to local pro-family organizations who rallied in support of their campaigns and both were elected handily.

Since taking their seats on the board, the duo has championed such issues as academic excellence, strong discipline, a moment of silence, and abstinence-based sex-ed. Each issue the two have tackled has strengthened their support among parents.

Marshall and Gramke have consistently encouraged citizen involvement. When the board was debating the parental rights policy, many parents attended board meetings every time the issue came up for discussion to show their support and to express their gratitude when the policy was finally approved.

Earlier this year, three new members who share many of Marshall’s and Gramke’s pro-family positions joined them on the board.

In Wichita and in Kansas, we are winning many skirmishes, but not yet the war. Average citizens have teamed with a growing number of like-minded elected officials to thwart radical school transformation plans that permeate education-reform schemes in every state.

These victories have been possible because grass roots politics in Kansas has become more sophisticated and organized through the efforts of a variety of coalitions and political party activities. Average citizens are involved in helping to identify and recruit potential candidates. People talking with neighbors and walking door-to-door with campaign literature promoting worthy candidates repeatedly succeed in producing favorable electoral results.



  • Cindy Duckett

    At the time this article was published, Cindy Duckett was president of the Wichita-based Project Educate, and associate editor of Crisis in Education.

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