Study shows proliferation of ‘educational intimidation’ legislation since 2021

By: - August 29, 2023 9:00 am
two stacks of frequently banned books

A new study released by the group PEN America says censorship of books like those shown here is among the negative impacts being felt in American schools as a result of hundreds of “education intimidation” bills filed in state legislatures, including North Carolina’s, across the country. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Parental rights legislation like that passed by North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly is intended to intimidate educators and censor curricula in public schools, says a New York-based free speech advocacy group made up of writers.

“Poets, Playwrights, Editors and Novelists” (PEN) recently released a report entitled, “Educational Intimidation: How ‘Parental Rights’ Legislation Undermines the Freedom to Learn,” that documents nearly 400 pieces of legislation that PEN deemed “educational intimidation bills.”

PEN found that between January 2021 and June 2023, 392 such bills have been introduced in state legislatures, 39 of which have passed into law. An additional nine policies have been adopted via executive order or enacted as part of state regulatory policy.

According to PEN, legislation is an educational intimidation bill if it contains at least one provision with “specific and recurring legal mechanisms with the foreseeable effect of chilling expression in educational settings.”

All but 15 of the 392 educational intimidation bills introduced in legislatures were sponsored exclusively by Republicans, according to PEN. And while there are some bills that apply to higher education, most are aimed at K-12 schools.

The laws that spring from such bills will turn “classrooms into an ideological battleground” and force teachers out of the profession, said Jonathan Friedman, PEN’s director of free expression and education programs.

“The opportunity for parents to inspect and object to school curricula is already commonly granted in public school systems, as it should be,” Friedman said. “But this spate of provisions dramatically expands these powers in ways that are designed to spur schools and educators to self-censor.”

The report mentions North Carolina’s Senate Bill 49, the so-called “Parents’ Bill of Rights”, which requires educators to tell parents if a child decides to change pronouns or use a different name at school. State educators worry that LGBTQ students without supportive parents might face harm if teachers are forced to “out” students to parents.

The study quotes Sarah Wilson of the Duke University School of Medicine, who testified against SB 49. “My professional opinion as a licensed clinical psychologist is that this bill will make our children less safe,” Wilson said.

SB 49 became law last week after North Carolina lawmakers overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the controversial bill.

A PEN map of education intimidation bills also cites Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s “Fairness and Accountability in the Classroom for Teachers and Students (F.A.C.T.S.) task force which sought to uncover political indoctrination in public schools. The task force turned up little evidence of such indoctrination.

The parental rights most education intimidation bills profess to ensure are covered under the federal Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment (PPRA). Under PPRA, for example, parents have the right to consent prior to a child taking any survey about religious reliefs, political affiliation, sexual behavior and family income.   

Here are some key findings from PEN’s report:

  • At least 19 states have passed educational intimidation bills or adopted them via state policy.
  • These bills overwhelmingly emanate from conservative legislators: 377 of the 392 have been introduced by Republicans.
  • Over 80 bills would force teachers to monitor students’ gender expression, forcibly outing students to their parents regardless of whether educators believe that such a disclosure is warranted, or how it will be received. Outing provisions are in effect, by law or by executive order, in North Carolina, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Utah, Kentucky, Alabama, Oklahoma and Virginia.
  • Of the intimidation bills introduced in 2023, 45 percent have an anti-LGBTQ+ provision, including the forced outing of students.
  • Missouri (30) has introduced the most educational intimidation bills in the nation, followed by Texas (21), Oklahoma (20), South Carolina (18), Indiana (17) and Mississippi (16).

The authors concluded that the “impact of most educational intimidation bills is official censorship, self-censorship, the chilling of student expression and the diminution of most parents’ ability to influence what their children learn at school.”

“We should recognize these bills for what they are: a censorious power grab by an extreme and unrepresentative minority that undermines parents, children, teachers, and the democratic foundation of the American system of public education as a whole,” the authors wrote.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.