Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds a press conference at the Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Juneau Empire file photo)

Opinion: An accurate portrayal of parental rights isn’t controversial

Affirming and defining parental rights is a matter of respect for the relationship between parent and child

  • By Gov. Mike Dunleavy
  • Saturday, March 18, 2023 2:30am
  • Opinion

By Gov. Mike Dunleavy

When presented accurately, the rights of parents to be involved and informed about what their children are being taught in school should not be controversial.

For mothers and fathers, the question is simple: Should you be the ones who decide what is best for your child and your family’s values? Or should decisions about what is best for your child be left to others?

Affirming and defining parental rights is a matter of respect for the relationship between parent and child that is unlike any other; it’s the relationship that makes up the essence of family.

This relationship shouldn’t be infringed upon, and protecting this relationship shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Unfortunately, some critics and media sources are attempting to mislead the public about the parental rights legislation I introduced on March 8.

Much of the criticism of this legislation hasn’t just been wrong; it’s been deliberately inflammatory to create responses based on emotions rather than facts and to prevent a fair hearing of the substance in the Legislature.

Among these claims are that the bill will enable child abuse and sexual abuse, that it is targeting certain people, or that it limits their rights.

None of these claims about this bill are accurate.

To be clear, this legislation does not repeal any portion of our laws regarding duty to report suspicions of physical or sexual abuse; nor does it repeal our statutes requiring age-appropriate sexual abuse prevention curriculum for students from kindergarten through graduation.

Not only does it preserve these protections for our most vulnerable, but it also provides for a school employee to withhold information from a parent if there is a reasonable belief that disclosure would result in abuse or neglect.

These provisions of the bill recognize that not every parent lives up to their responsibilities, and each one of those instances is tragic. The solution, however, is not to deny parents their rights by arguing that every parent is a potential abuser who can’t be trusted with information about their child’s health and education.

More of the criticism around this bill claims that it targets gender non-conforming students because it includes the category of gender identity in curriculum requiring parental notification, and for permission to change a student’s name.

The issues around gender identity, especially as it relates to education, are controversial; there is simply no denying that.

We could pretend these differences don’t exist and deem school personnel ­— not parents — as the authority on these matters. Alternatively, we can make sure parents are involved in what their kids are being taught and whatever they may be going through to ensure the best possible outcomes for their mental health and well-being.

This legislation simply acknowledges a new reality; it does not target anyone.

Finally, to the issue of protecting the rights to privacy and safety for all students, the bill requires separation of restrooms and locker rooms by biological sex, or providing for the use of single occupancy facilities.

Recognizing and affirming that all students in a state of undress have a right to privacy and safety should not be controversial. Imposing policies that don’t recognize this reality will only fuel division rather than accommodating the needs of everyone.

The history of affirming and defining parental rights at the federal and state level is not a novel concept nationally or here in Alaska.

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment was enacted by Congress in 1978, and among its provisions are that parents have the right to inspect upon request the instructional curriculum being taught to their children. It also requires parents and students to be notified of their rights under the PPRA by the school district.

As a state senator, I worked on parental rights issues beginning when I was elected in 2012 after more than 20 years working as a teacher, principal, superintendent, and school board president. I’m also the parent of three daughters who attended public schools in both rural and urban Alaska.

In 2016, long before events of the past two to three years, former state Rep. Wes Keller and I succeeded in passing a parental rights bill that defined parents’ authority in their children’s education to include notification of sexual education and their right to withdraw their student from any class, program, or activity that they find objectionable.

The legislation I’ve introduced makes a key change to ensure that parental rights are respected by changing the requirement from the right to “opt-out” to a requirement that parents must “opt-in.”

We’ve seen around the country what happens when these rights of parents to informed consent are not honored or respected, including heated exchanges at school board meetings over certain curriculum or materials in classrooms that led to requests for the Department of Justice to investigate parents under laws that apply to domestic terrorists.

These are not scenes or outcomes we want to play out here in Alaska.

By requiring school districts to provide parents with notice of their rights, informed consent on curriculum, and written permission for their children to participate, we will reduce the chances of conflict and increase parental involvement in education that is critical to the success and well-being of our students.

More communication and more transparency among parents, students, teachers, administrators, and school board members will bring us together, rather than divide us the way the critics of this legislation are attempting to do with their baseless attacks.

As a parent and an educator, I’ve worked my entire career to improve lives for parents and families, and to encourage parental involvement in their children’s education. This bill merely creates a stronger connection between what our schools are teaching and the parents who are sending their kids off to school every day.

For those who are interested in this issue and what the bill does, I encourage you to read this bill that takes up just more than four pages and decide for yourself whether the facts as I’ve described them match up with the way some are choosing to portray it.

Mike Dunleavy is the 12th governor of Alaska.

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