It didn’t take long for the school-focused culture wars to take center stage in Sacramento. On Monday, lawmakers’ first day back from summer break, the battle lines were clearly drawn in competing political events.
On the Capitol lawn, a coalition of parental rights activists condemned proposed legislation that would make it more difficult for school boards to ban books and increase state oversight to ensure diverse curriculum materials. Other measures would grant transgender students the ability to self-emancipate from unaccepting parents and fine people who disrupt school board meetings.
At an Elk Grove elementary school ten minutes away, Gov. Gavin Newsom touted plans to increase culturally competent instruction, nutrition initiatives, health care, counseling and before-and after-school programs. Elk Grove Unified School district leaders expressed support for his plans to bolster community engagement while protecting access to books and history lessons.
The afternoon’s cross-town debate vividly illustrated the ongoing tensions between Democratic state officials and increasingly vocal local school boards who find themselves on opposite sides in what policies they believe are best for California’s children.
The parental rights groups took issue with bills like AB 5, which would require the Department of Education to develop annual, one-hour trainings for teachers and school employees on how to support LGBT students, and AB 1078, which would make it harder for school boards to ban books in schools and ensure curriculum represents cultural and racial diversity. They also advocated for parental notification policies that compel school employees to inform parents if their child changes their pronouns or name at school.
Parental notification policies are the latest flashpoints of the child-focused culture war. Last month, the state launched a civil rights investigation into Chino Valley Unified School District for its passage of the policy.
Sonja Shaw, president of Chino Valley Unified School District and champion of for parental notification, headlined the rally. Shaw told The Bee that the state subpoenaed her emails and text messages as part of the investigation.
By her side was Assemblyman Bill Essayli, R-Riverside, who introduced a bill earlier this year that would have made the parental notification policy adopted by Chino Valley a statewide mandate. The bill got no airtime in the Legislature, compelling Essayli to work through the local level.
“I am taking my bill to every school district up and down this state,” he said to the crowd at the Capitol.
A few weeks after Chino Valley passed its policy, Murrieta Valley Unified School District took up the measure.
The state says that the policy endangers transgender youth if they have unsupportive parents. Nearly one in five transgender and nonbinary youth attempted suicide in 2022, according to the Trevor Project’s survey of 34,000 LGBT youth. Having a supportive family halved the rate of suicide attempts, as did having an LGBT-affirming school.
But Essayli pointed to the high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in transgender and nonbinary kids to argue the opposite. Parents should know if their child is transgender or nonbinary, he said, so that they can watch out for their mental health.
“It’s misleading to make it sound like we’re going out and we’re sniffing out oh, this kid might be transgender, let’s go tell their parents,” he said. “We’re talking about when the school is formally reassigning the gender of the student in school, they tell their parents.”
Shaw said that the policy can “expose some of those dangerous environments” because teachers are mandatory reporters.
“Who is Bonta, Newsom and Thurmond to determine that the parents are dangerous?” she said. “There’s a process for everything.”
The evolution of the anti-vax activist
Many of the parental rights activists that gathered at the Capitol on Monday got their start protesting statewide shutdowns and vaccine and mask mandates during the pandemic.
“I didn’t have a political background prior to this. I didn’t even know what the Republican Party or Democrat was,” said Shaw. School shutdowns during the pandemic motivated Shaw, then a personal trainer, photographer and real estate agent, into action.
Eventually, her local Republican party “offered us a hand and gave us a voice,” she said. She was recruited to the California GOP’s Trailblazer program, their candidate training initiative, and was elected to Chino Valley’s school board.
The Freedom Angels, also present at the rally, formed in 2019 to protest vaccine mandates for public school students. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the movement took off to protest statewide shutdowns. Now, it is turning its attention to school curriculum and parental rights.
“The people of every demographic and of every partisan politics and beyond the fake divide are mobilizing locally,” said Tara Thornton, a co-founder of Freedom Angels. “We’re building district to Capitol networks to course-correct California.”
Though backed by the Republican party and Republican lawmakers, they insisted their issues transcend partisan politics at the voter level.
“I think when you speak to your average Democrat voters, they would not agree with these policy positions at this point,” Essayli told The Bee.
Newsom’s angle: free speech and inclusivity
In his remarks across town, Newsom promoted his administration’s “California’s Family Agenda” with its plans to increase access to educational resources, such as culturally competent instruction, nutrition efforts, health care, counseling and before- and after-school programs.
But it didn’t take long for Newsom to come to the topic on many parent’s minds: local control.
Though much of his criticism was saved for other states, Newsom also called pointed to districts like Temecula Valley Unified, which challenged state-mandated history textbooks over the inclusion of LGBTQ historymakers like former San Francisco Mayor Harvey Milk.
“Local control is not willfully breaking the law. That’s not local control. Laws are well established, they’re inclusive,” he said.
There are a “few people” who are trying to “deny the rights of other parents and family and children,” when it comes to parental choice, he said.
Speaking about today’s demonstration: “They came up to oppose parental engagement while we’re here celebrating it — that’s Orwellian doublespeak.” he told reporters. “We’re talking about freedom to speak, freedom to teach, not creating a chilling effect with fear and anxiety.”
Whether the parental rights and local control activists can derail the bills they oppose remains to be seen. As of Monday afternoon, the Senate Appropriations Committee placed AB 5, the bill requiring teachers to receive LGBT support training, on the suspense file. This means members will decide to advance the measure or kill it at a hearing before the Sept. 1 deadline for bills to get out of fiscal committees.
This story was originally published August 14, 2023, 5:01 PM.
https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article278248118.html Parental rights activists spar with Newsom, Thurmond at Capitol