Parents Rights and the Local Schools: a Guardian’s Guide

** This article is to inform and not advise and does not create an attorney-client relationship between any person or entity and Gelbman Legal Group P.C. **

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has consistently held that parents have a right to know what public school teachers teach their children. Furthermore, parents possess the ultimate authority over their children’s education. Many school boards, administrators, and faculty ignore these rights and dismiss parental concerns. They often claim that parents cannot dictate what the public schools teach their children. Some even claim that attempts to change the makeup of school boards via the electoral process are engaged in ‘domestic terrorism.’

So what is the law on all this? A little-known but significant provision of the federal law called ‘the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment’ or PPRA (20 U.S.C. § 1232h) speaks directly to this issue. This federal law, enacted in 1974 and expanded as recently as 2002, guarantees parents the right to review the local curriculum. In some cases, parents can opt-out of activities or assignments at any school receiving federal funding.

Depending on your state, you may have additional rights under state laws to review the activities and curricula of local public teachers and administrators. Nevertheless, federal law allows parents to review the curriculum. It prohibits schools from asking highly personal questions about students’ sex lives and drug usage without parental consent. As Frederick Douglass, among others, has warned us, ” Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” The PPRA is a valuable tool for doing so.

SCOPE OF 20 U.S.C. § 1232h
20 U.S.C. § 1232h guarantees parents or guardians a right to inspect the local school curriculum and provides an even more extensive set of rights to review and opt-out of surveys and studies about children’s lives and attitudes.

Curriculum
Parents or guardians have the federally guaranteed right to inspect “any instructional material” used in the education curriculum for the student. Of course, the parent or guardian must request the material; the school does not have to disclose it without a formal request. The parental demand must include the wording “for teacher training materials designed to affect or direct student instruction as instructional material.”

Schools cannot, without parental consent, require students to respond to questions regarding:

  • Student or parental political affiliation or belief
  • Mental health challenges
  • Sexuality, or sexual behavior/ attitudes
  • Participation in illegal, antisocial, or demeaning behavior
  • Anything that would have the student self-incriminate
  • Critical appraisals of close relatives
  • Privileged Relationships (such as attorney-client, patient-doctor, or priest-penitent relationships)
  • Religion, spiritual belief, or practices
  • Family or Personal Income (unless asked regarding eligibility to participate in a program)

Suppose the school wants to distribute or administer a survey created by an outside entity (not the school). In that case, the parent has the right to review the survey first, along with any supplemental material (including teacher’s manuals) for the survey. The parent must make a formal request for this. Without such a request, the school need not give parents copies. Please be aware that this covers all materials for gender and race-related surveys.

Some school districts hire data mining companies to prepare racially focused student and faculty surveys and data management tools. Some hire outside contractors to provide training about “systemic racism,” “oppression,” “White supremacy,” “implicit bias,” “gender issues,” and “intersectionality,” often under the guise of “Social-Emotional Learning.” Parents must remain vigilant and aware, or the PPRA and other laws are useless.

Personal information to be sold
Schools must notify parents and allow them to opt their child out of collecting their child’s personal identifying information when the school sells that information to third parties. Personal information includes:

  • parents’ names,
  • home addresses,
  • phone numbers,
  • Social Security numbers, and
  • any information that individually identifies the student, except when developing educational products for students or schools.

It is unclear whether racial, and gender data mining under the “Social-Emotional Learning” rubric is subject to the PPRA’s privacy provisions. However, parents should raise and explore the issue.

Physical examinations
Schools must notify parents and allow them to opt their child out of invasive non-emergency physical exams. An examination is “invasive” if it exposes private body parts or involves the insertion of any instrument into a child’s body (hearing and vision tests or scoliosis screening are not considered “invasive.”)

WHO IS COVERED?
Any school receiving federal funding is subject to the PPRA. Public schools receive federal funds from federal grants and programs, as do some private schools participating in federal programs.

The statute protects parental rights until a child turns 18 years old. Students over 18 can assert the same rights for themselves.

WHAT DOES THE SCHOOL HAVE TO DO?
The school must notify the parents when it wants to ask students about any matters listed in the law. Especially surveys about sensitive personal matters and personally-identifying information meant for sale. Schools should obtain written parental consent for their child’s participation in any school-mandated study. If the parents refuse consent, then, theoretically, the school is prohibited from requiring the child to participate.

The school must also develop a set of standard policies that it will follow to notify parents and obtain consent when needed. The school needs to notify the parents at least once per year.
Schools often provide perfunctory or highly technical notice at the beginning of the year to meet their legal obligations without providing parents with practical or actionable information. Parental engagement is vital to give the law effect.

PARENTAL OPTIONS UNDER PPRA (20 U.S.C § 1232h)
Parents may directly request information from school districts with a simple email or letter saying:
“I request immediate access to the following under the provisions of the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, 20 U.S.C § 1232h:

  • All curricula, including teacher training manuals and materials intended for use in [identify the child’s class]
  • Copies of any and all surveys and related documents given to my child during the past school year and the opt-out notifications provided to parents when such surveys ask for information concerning or related to:
  • the student’s or student’s parent’s political affiliations or beliefs;
  • mental health issues of the student or the student’s family;
  • sexual behavior or attitudes;
  • unlawful, antisocial, demeaning behavior, or anything potentially self-incriminating;
  • critical appraisals of other close family members, including all materials regarding “White privilege” or “anti-racism”;
  • privileged relationships, such as those with lawyers, physicians, and religious advisors;
  • the student’s or the student’s parents’ religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs; or
  • income unless lawfully required to determine eligibility for participation in a specific program or receiving financial assistance.)

Suppose schools do not fulfill their obligations under the PPRA. In that case, parents should complain to the U.S. Department of Education (the form is available at https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/file-a-complaint.) There is a 180-day deadline after an alleged violation to file a complaint.

Following a complaint, the U.S. Department of Education must investigate and adjudicate the allegations. Violation of PPRA can result in the termination of a school’s federal funding, and the school refuses to comply voluntarily. Should the U.S. Department of Education does not or will not act, parents, have various options, including:

  • Filing suit against the USDOE, the school district, and the individual staff or faculty involved
  • Filing an administrative petition to stop federal funding of the offending school district
  • Ask your congressman or senator to investigate
  • Complain to your state representatives or attorney general
  • Engage in direct political action. e.g., petitions, school board protests, state or local curriculum, lobbying for state education transparency laws and running for school board seats.

Consult with an attorney to determine the wisest course of action.

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