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What a House GOP messaging bill could spell for 2024 culture war campaign

Rep. Elise Stafanik, R-N.Y., Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., held an event to introduce the Parents Bill of Rights Act at the U.S. Capitol on March 1.
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Rep. Elise Stafanik, R-N.Y., Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., held an event to introduce the Parents Bill of Rights Act at the U.S. Capitol on March 1.

House Republicans passed legislation Friday aimed at boosting parents' access to information about their child's education, fulfilling a midterm pledge that GOP lawmakers hope will be a galvanizing issue next year.

"The Parents Bill of Rights is an important step towards protecting children and dramatically strengthening the rights of parents," House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on the House floor ahead of the bill's passage.

Five Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the legislation. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the chamber, but several Democratic absences enabled the legislation to pass despite the handful of GOP defections.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has already said the bill has no political future in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but the legislation does send a message about GOP priorities and indicates a further leaning in on culture war issues ahead of the 2024 election.

What does the bill do?

The bill, introduced by Louisiana Rep. Julia Letlow, requires schools to notify parents that they have the right to review the curriculum and school budget, inspect books and other library materials, and receive information about any violent activity in the school.

The bill would also prohibit schools from selling student information. Elementary schools or schools housing grades 5-8 would be required to obtain parental consent before changing a student's pronouns or preferred name or allowing a student to change their sex-based accommodations, like locker rooms or bathrooms.

"[This legislation] is not an attempt to have Congress dictate curriculum, or determine the books in the library," Letlow said on the House floor Thursday. "Instead, this bill aims to bring more transparency and accountability to education, allowing parents to be informed, and when they have questions and concerns to lawfully bring them to their local school boards."

Schools that don't comply with the bill would be in danger of losing federal funding.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks alongside a stack of banned books during a press conference on March 24.
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House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries speaks alongside a stack of banned books during a press conference on March 24.

Democrats tie legislation to other efforts to curb what's being taught in schools

Democrats are fiercely opposed to the bill, dubbing it the "politics over parents act." They claim it seeks to codify already existing parental rights and politicizes the classroom.

"Rather than actually invest in empowering parents, making sure parents have the opportunity to be engaged and involved in the education of their children, the extreme MAGA Republicans want to jam their rightwing ideology down the throats of students, teachers and parents throughout America," House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries told reporters Friday.

During floor debate on the bill this week, House Democrats argued the bill puts LGBTQ students at risk.

"This Republican bill is asking the government to force the outing of LGBT people before they are ready," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said.

Despite Republican lawmakers repeatedly claiming the legislation doesn't ban books, Democrats argue the bill could provide a legal basis for book bans and censorship in schools.

In the 2021-22 school year, more than 1,600 book titles were banned, according to a report by PEN America, which advocates for freedom of expression.

Political fissures about parents rights and what's being taught in classrooms have also been on display at the state level. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who is widely considered a viable presidential contender in 2024, signed the controversial "Parental Rights in Education" bill last year, which critics refer to as the "Don't Say Gay" bill. DeSantis' administration is currently moving to expand on that policy by prohibiting instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation to all grade levels.

Last year, at least a dozen states considered measures that mirrored the Florida legislation.

"Democrats are now trying to take advantage of the extremes that we're seeing in some parts of the country, the strong curricular efforts in Florida, for example, the images of libraries with yellow tape across the books," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"That's because there still are a lot of Americans, including Americans in purple states or swing areas, who value the notion that education ought to stretch their kids' minds and understandings, the notion that we have a complicated history in the U.S. and that children as eventual citizens need to understand that complicated history."

Education as a culture war issue

The issue of parental involvement in education has been brewing as a culture war issue for years and was accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic where school shutdowns and mask mandates energized parents.

As schools reopened, concerns among conservatives grew about curricula in schools, particularly on topics of race, gender and sexual orientation.

Critical race theory, an academic approach taught in college and post-grad that examines how race and racism function in American institutions, was brought to the forefront of political discourse as House Republicans argued the theory was being taught to K-12 students.

The issue was encapsulated in the 2021 Virginia governors race, where Republican Glenn Youngkin trumpeted parents' rights.

"What we're seeing now in terms of the Parents Bill of Rights is really an outgrowth of Glenn Youngkin's victory," said nonpartisan election analyst Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report.

"It was a message that struck a chord as we were coming out of the pandemic, and it helped Youngkin win that race," he told NPR. "His crusade for parental rights kind of became a catch-all for voters' frustrations with schools and logistics in the pandemic. And now as we've emerged from COVID, these issues are more of a partisan culture war that divides Democrats and Republicans."

Wasserman says the bill is a sign Republicans view parental rights as a winning issue in 2024, but cautions the "jury's out" for now on how independent voters and voters in swing districts view this type of legislation.

"Republicans believe that attacking Democrats as a party beholden to teachers unions and siding against parents on a variety of cultural war topics — be it transgender athletes, or what Republicans would say is 'woke indoctrination' and libraries and curriculums — they believe that will resonate," he said. "And yet we haven't really seen this issue take center stage in a presidential campaign lately, so it'll take time to to see whether independent voters warm up to Republicans' message or whether this falls flat."

Henig, of Columbia University, says part of the political appeal of the messaging over parents' rights is that it's adaptable to local audiences.

"So when Republicans talk about parents choice to voters in suburban, moderate communities, they can bang on COVID kinds of issues, which generate some sympathy among parents who had to deal with kids at home or unpredictable schooling or the complications of online schooling," he said. "Then when they're speaking to voters in red states, or MAGA voting districts, they can turn the dial to the end of the culture wars issues — the anti-critical race theory, the teaching about sex to young children, the issues related to how to treat transgender athletes."

While that could be effective at the district level, the strategy becomes trickier on the presidential level. The nature of the Republican primary means candidates are likely to cast themselves further right than some moderate Republicans or swing voters might be comfortable with come November.

"In general elections, most of the strategy depends on perceptions of the audience in a small number of purple states," he said. "That's where Republicans for national office want to be able to reserve the ability to swing back to the less controversial version of parents rights," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt
Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.