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EDUCATION : Parents’ Group Seeks Law for More Say at Children’s Schools

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Jeffrey Bell, a conservative author and activist, public schools are places that shut out parents and are ruled by bureaucrats who enforce mediocrity, undermine parental guidance and probe into children’s home lives.

So he and like-minded parents have joined in a Virginia-based organization to push for adoption of a “parental-rights amendment” to state constitutions. Its purpose, they say, is to give parents more say in their children’s education and more control over what they are doing while in school.

“Parents would like to see more traditional, more academic programs,” Bell said, but are stymied because they don’t have much leverage with school boards. “The PTA is not going to hack it as a means of influencing schools.”

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The amendment seems to be catching on. Of the People, the organization Bell leads, predicts that amendments will be introduced in 21 states, including California, over the next month.

“If voters have to vote on (whether) parents or somebody else direct their children’s upbringing,” Bell predicted, “we’re going to win.”

As drafted by the organization, the amendment says: “The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.”

The language would support the right of parents to choose their child’s school, ensure schools teach “mainstream values” and would preclude children from suing their parents over health care and schooling, the group’s brochure says.

Supporters believe the amendment also would cover parental consent for abortions and for school distribution of condoms, although Bell said education is its focus.

Even though a number of U.S. Supreme Court cases have established parents’ rights to direct their children’s upbringing, Bell said state legislatures and liberal advocacy groups are more likely to give more weight to the concept if it is added to state constitutions. He said the need for such an amendment was demonstrated by the American Civil Liberties Union’s appeal of a New York court order banning school condom distribution without parental consent.

In California, legislation to amend the state Constitution was introduced Thursday by state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove). Advocates are still searching for a sponsor in the Assembly. If approved by two-thirds majorities in each chamber, the amendment would be placed on the next statewide ballot.

Carolyn Steinke, an Indio, Calif., education activist with five children in the Desert Sands Unified School District, said the district intrudes into family matters and undermines the values she teaches at home. She cited a survey her sixth-grade son was given two years ago to measure stress. It asked about home discipline, diet and neatness. “That’s using children as eyes into the home,” said Steinke, who supports the proposed amendment.

But opponents say parental rights already are protected--and warn that the amendment is a scheme to further conservative views.

It “is a political cover for a right-wing agenda,” said Kate Michelman, director of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

“I think their real intent is to control the materials and content of courses their children are exposed to and dictate a point of view they possess to the rest of us.”

Thirty-five states now have laws either requiring parental consent or notification for a minor to obtain an abortion. But the laws are enjoined or not enforced in nine states, including California, NARAL says.

Another amendment opponent, Howard Davidson, director of the American Bar Assn.'s Center on Children and the Law, said that parents “concerned with children having a voice in litigation are out of step with emerging views throughout the world.” He noted that all industrialized nations except the United States have adopted a U.N. convention giving children the right to representation in legal cases affecting them.

It is unclear how schools would be run if a parental-rights amendment were to pass.

Bell said he could imagine parents voting on what should be taught--for example, whether to teach phonics. Those unhappy with the decisions should have “greater freedom to go elsewhere.”


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