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Power to the parents

Education | Advocates for a new constitutional amendment say the push for parental rights could unite the country
by Leigh Jones
Posted 12/06/17, 03:05 pm

At a time when lawmakers in Washington can’t seem to agree on anything, parental rights advocates think their issue could erase the left-right divide, at least temporarily.

Backers of the movement are trying to get Congress to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would codify the rights of parents to make decisions for their children without government interference. It’s a tall order. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of Congress. Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the Senate, can’t even secure enough votes to pass major legislation, like healthcare reform. But William Estrada, director of federal relations with the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), believes the Parental Rights Amendment could be the issue that rises above Capitol Hill partisanship.

“We realize it’s a difficult task to amend the Constitution, but we’re optimistic that if ever one could, this is the issue that could get the political will,” he told me.

Estrada and others with HSLDA began lobbying for a Parental Rights Amendment after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2000 cast doubt on the immutability of parental rights. The Troxel v. Granville ruling opened the door for lower courts to consider questions of parental rights on a case-by-case basis, Estrada said. Seeing that as a major shift in U.S. legal precedent, homeschooling parents began to fear a future ruling could strip them of their right to make the educational decisions they believe are in their children’s best interest.

But parental rights issues encompass much more than homeschooling. Parents in public schools face challenges to their authority from administrators who believe they know best in areas dealing with sex education and gender issues. In a medical setting, parents sometimes find themselves at odds with healthcare professionals over treatment recommendations. And all parents face the possibility of a child protective services investigation triggered by an anonymous complaint.

Although Estrada sees parental rights eroding in the United States, they are nowhere near as limited as in Europe. This summer, the case of baby Charlie Gard riveted the world, prompting questions about whether a similar situation could happen in America. A British court sided with doctors who determined the disabled infant should be taken off life support against his parents’ wishes. His parents’ legal fight dragged on for months, and by the time they convinced a judge to let other doctors examine him, his condition had deteriorated beyond treatment.

Other cases created fewer headlines but highlight the imbalance between parents and government. In Scotland, lawmakers are considering assigning a state guardian to every child in the country. In Germany, the government takes children from parents who want to homeschool them. In Norway, children can be removed from parents who spank, and children can legally change their gender without their parents’ consent.

Estrada sees those types of cases as the “canary in the coal mine” for Americans. Surveys have shown Americans almost universally support parental rights, regardless of political affiliation, but that might not always be the case, Estrada said.

In August, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced the Parental Rights Amendment in the Senate, and in November, Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., introduced companion legislation in the House. Estrada and others are working to build bipartisan support, although he admits the effort is more of a marathon than a sprint. Estrada predicts the bills could get a vote in the next Congress. His next goal is to have a hearing before the full House Judiciary Committee.

If the legislation does make it through Congress, it must still be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Parental rights advocates are building state-level coalitions now with the hope of one day launching a coast-to-coast lobbying effort. The odds might not look good, but Estrada pointed to the drastic change in the status of homeschooling, which was mostly illegal in the 1980s.

“We do have evidence that when it’s about giving families more freedom, we have a winning strategy,” he said.

iStock.com/PetrBonek iStock.com/PetrBonek

Beating back Blaine in New Mexico

As expected, the newly elected slate of anti-choice school board members in Douglas County, Colo., voted Monday to end the yearslong litigation over one of the most sweeping school voucher programs in the nation. The program, approved by the suburban Denver district in 2011, allowed students to use publicly funded vouchers to attend any school they wanted. Douglas County was the only school district in the nation to adopt a voucher program.

The group that filed suit against the program based its arguments on Colorado’s Blaine Amendment, a constitutional provision banning public money from going to religious institutions. Dozens of other states have similar provisions. The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before getting sent back for reconsideration after the Trinity Lutheran v. Comer ruling. In that case, the high court ruled Missouri could not block a church from a state playground improvement program simply because of its religious nature.

School choice advocates hoped a new ruling in the Colorado case, in light of Trinity Lutheran, would wipe out barriers to voucher programs in other states. Now they’re looking to another case in New Mexico that has similar correlations to school choice, although the implications of a favorable ruling aren’t likely to be as broad.

As in Colorado, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the New Mexico high court to reconsider its decision striking down a state textbook program that included secular and religious private schools. The state Supreme Court in 2015 ruled the program violated New Mexico’s Blaine Amendment. If the court reverses its decision, it would set a precedent for the unconstitutionality of other Blaine Amendments.

“From kicking Catholic immigrants out of polite society to kicking children out of a quality education, these provisions hurt the vulnerable and marginalized in society,” said Eric Baxter, senior counsel with Becket, the religious liberty law firm defending New Mexico’s textbook program. “It’s time to end the bigoted reign of Blaine.” —L.J.

Facebook/Ballou Senior High School Facebook/Ballou Senior High School Ballou High School graduating class of 2017

Pomp and suspicion

The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high: 84 percent. The rate for the 2015-16 school year rose almost an entire percentage point over the previous year’s number, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Students across all demographics saw improvements, giving educators something to celebrate.

But skeptics question whether the numbers really paint an accurate picture of students’ accomplishments, especially after the high-profile collapse of this year’s feel-good graduation story of the year.

Media outlets gushed this summer about Ballou High School, the Washington, D.C., campus at which every graduate receive an offer from a college. Stories about the school’s culture of excellence abounded, but several former teachers insisted the students’ success was mostly “smoke and mirrors.” According to an NPR investigation, a majority of Ballou’s 2017 graduating class missed more than six weeks of school. Just two months before graduation, only 57 of the school’s 164 graduates were on-track to get their diplomas.

Teachers say administrators pressured them to graduate students despite chronic absences and incomplete coursework. Students who didn’t turn in assignments got at least a 50, making it easier to pull their overall grade up to passing with extra work, even if they hadn’t really earned a passing grade. Teachers say graduates weren’t adequately prepared for life, much less college. The average SAT score for Ballou graduates was 782 out of a possible 1600. A majority of Ballou graduates were accepted by the University of the District of Columbia, a local community college, but only 16 enrolled.

“The elephant in the room is how these kids are getting through middle school and getting through high school,” one current Ballou teacher told NPR. “That’s passing the buck and totally unacceptable, especially from a leadership standpoint.” —L.J.

Second-chance spellers

The Scripps National Spelling Bee announced another round of changes this week to make the competition more interesting, and bigger. Starting next year, Scripps will offer 225 wild-card slots to any student who wins a school-level spelling competition. The change is designed to help even the playing field at regional bees, which up to now have provided the only gateway to the national competition. Because some regional contests are more competitive than others, really good spellers who might have a chance to win in Washington, D.C., often get left at home while weaker spellers make the trip only to get knocked out in the early rounds. Students will have to apply for a wild-card spot and pay their own way to the competition. Regional sponsors pay for winners of their contests to continue on to nationals. Scripps will give preference to spellers who have traveled to the nationals before or are in their final years of eligibility. Last year, 291 spellers competed in the National Spelling Bee. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on education for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital.

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Comments

  • infohighwy
    Posted: Wed, 12/06/2017 03:47 pm

    Unfortunately, no amendment to the Constitution is exempt from the "law of unintended consequences" which seems to be a law that is as pervasive and certain as gravity. I do hope that any amendment that may be adopted might not come back to have serious unforseen consequences that almost no one in 2017 would have forseen or suspected. It should be very carefully written to anticipate social conventions or other changes that could take place in the next 100 years.

    The amendment on prohibition was, from what I read, thought of as a wonderful thing by many Americans at the time who apparently could not forsee the unforseen consequences that would foster the criminal gang explosion in the 1920s that may have not happened if bootlegging liquor was not so lucrative and profitable. Of course if the prohibition amendment was so wonderful and successful, why was it later repealed? Apparently it too was a victim of the "law of unintended consequences."

    One must stretch one's mind to try and imagine later unforseen negative consequences of any amendment, no matter how noble and wonderful it seems to be at the present time. Laws are made to last for decades, but amendments are made to last for hundreds of years, and should be viewed with that difference in mind.

    I finally offer as "exhibit A" in the warning about caution when passing amendments, "The Equal Rights Amendment." It no doubt seemed so right in 1972 but for some reason, possibly many reasons, has failed to come to fruition, and its failure may be seen as a good thing by some conservatives or people with 20/20 hindsight.

    The reason amendments are so hard to do is because they can have consequences for hundreds of years across untold generations. That's probably a good thing wisely seen by our nation's founders. Once again, their wisdom at the time they drew up the rules for amending our Constitution appears to have been blessed or led by Providence.

  • PaulC
    Posted: Wed, 12/06/2017 10:15 pm

    Our great lack in America it seems to me is the proper fear of the Lord.  Scripture tells us that the fear of the Lord is both the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7) and the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).  I understand the fear of the Lord to be a proper respect and reverence for the God who made us and sent his son to be our Saviour.  It is not the same as Christian faith.  The fear of the Lord is more basic than that, and since it is the beginning of knowing and the beginning of acquiring wisdom, where the fear of the Lord is missing so are true knowledge and wisdom.  We will not be able to bring America out of its present crisis by means of changes in the law or the constitution.  We need a revival of true faith in God where that has grown weak, and the creation of true faith where none has existed.  God help us!  Bring lost ones to Yourself, and straying ones back to Your fold. In the name of Jesus, our Saviour, Amen.

  • Daniel Strange
    Posted: Wed, 12/06/2017 10:34 pm

    I took a Constitutional Literacy course last year (actually called Constitutional Literacy) by Michael Faris, who was once, if I remember correctly, the head of HSLDA. I hold him in high regard as to what he says. He is a bigtime advocate of Parental Rights. He recommended visiting https://parentalrights.org/ for more info on this matter.

    One thing that not many people know about amending the Constitution is that it can be amended by "We the people", though this has only ever been used once with the twenty first amendment. Congress could call a convention of states to ratify the said amendment, or to block ratification. Three fourths of all the states, that would be thirty eight states, must ratify it. If thirty seven or less ratify, the Constitution will not get amended.

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Thu, 12/07/2017 01:59 pm

    The parental rights amendment is a good idea, in my opinion.  We need to get ahead of the European curve by clarifying to the Supreme Court how it should rule in cases involving parental rights.  This can only be done through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  With proper foresight, we can avoid another Dred Scott moment.

  • Cosmo
    Posted: Sat, 12/09/2017 02:15 pm

    Another case in point with "infohighwy", the amendment that allows every child born in the USA to be a US citizen has created a managerie of problems with our immigration laws.  I worked in Angola for 14 years and sent many Angolans to the USA for college and work experience,  As soon as they found out they were going, their wives got pregnant and they had a child in the US every year after that until they returned.  They now have several US citizens in their family that allows them immediate access to our embassy and many privileges.  I never really had a problem with that, because many of them saw it as a way to save their children during the civil war that was going on.  However, they got leverage for the parents to get their children out along with those children that weren't born in the USA to come here.  It was kind of a de facto citizenship.  It's a complex world out there and we as US citizens just don't seem to completely comprehend them very well.  If we were all looking toward God and not something special for ourselves, it might get simpler, or not!  Also, our simpathy around the world is not really appreciated by many, it's expected.  We've created that not only abroad, but here in our own country.  Benevolance is a wonderful thing, but it can also create a situation that is expected and not appreciated.  God's Will be done.  I will never stop being as benevolant as I can be, even though it may seem to become expected.

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