Moms for Liberty members say parental rights have limits with reading rule

As part of a broad effort to reduce red tape on public schools, Florida senators have homed in on the often contentious state law that requires children to repeat third grade if they don’t show enough progress in reading.

They want to give parents more control over that decision.

But three groups that regularly advocate for expanding the Parents’ Bill of Rights told lawmakers at a recent hearing that they “strongly oppose” the idea.

Why? Because it “allows parents to override the school district for their child,” according to a letter detailing the stance taken by the Moms for Liberty Florida Legislative Committee, Florida Citizens Alliance and Citizens Defending Freedom.

“While there is an argument that retention needs to be balanced with parental rights, an illiterate child allowed to advance will not only never recover but will have a significant negative impact on the 4th grade class,” they wrote. “Standards are in place for a reason. This needs to be removed.”

The groups, however, took a different position on state standards when they argued against another proposal that would require schools to provide greater access to prekindergarten offerings. They contended Florida’s Voluntary Prekindergarten program should be “completely private” without state regulation, and that “Parents who vote with their attendance or (l)eave are the accountability.”

The apparent inconsistency did not go unnoticed.

Monroe County School Board chairperson Sue Woltanski, who has written extensively about the state’s education accountability program on her Accountabaloney blog, posted that the groups’ primary goal did not appear to be parental rights.

Instead, Woltanski said in an interview, the groups’ stance on third grade retention “seems to be a political maneuver rather than what’s best for children.” She added that it appears to contradict the Moms for Liberty publicly stated philosophy, as illustrated by its social media tag #WeTheParents and its motto stating “We do not co-parent with the government.”

Woltanski echoed a theme aired by several progressive groups that have tagged Moms for Liberty and similar organizations as creating chaos in public education rather than advocating for parental rights.

Few education decisions could be more important for a parent than whether their child is forced to repeat a grade, which often is a predictor of dropping out, she said.

In SB 7004 — which has unanimously passed two committees — senators propose that parents should be able to decide retention is not in their child’s best interest and approve a reading intervention plan instead.

A staff analysis says the legislation aligns with the state’s Parents’ Bill of Rights, which specifies it is a fundamental right of parents to “direct the upbringing, education, and care of their minor children.” The law adds that government may not infringe on those fundamental rights “without demonstrating that such action is reasonable and necessary to achieve a compelling state interest” that cannot be achieved by some less restrictive means.

“The Florida Citizens Alliance is 100% for vouchers to private Christian schools and 100% supports homeschooling, where parents have complete control of their children’s education,” Woltanski said. “To be supportive of that, but not to support a public school’s parental consent after consulting with teachers (regarding) retention of children, that is absurd.”

Keith Flaugh, a managing director of the alliance, said via email that there must be limits to parent rights.

“Parents can’t send their child to a government school with a gun or drugs or cigarettes to name just a few examples,” wrote Flaugh, who served on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ 2018 education transition committee.

He added that an illiterate child can drag down an entire class of children.

“Those 20-plus parents have rights also,” Flaugh wrote. “Parents rights are not absolute.”

Sarah Calamunci, Florida state director for Citizens Defending Freedom, said via email that her group stood by its statement in the letter to lawmakers that reading standards for advancing to fourth grade are needed to “help protect the success of children as they continue to advance in their educational journey.”

A spokesperson for Moms for Liberty stepped back from its Florida Legislative Committee statements on the legislation, saying the national organization had not decided whether to support it.

Flaugh’s view on boundaries to parental rights lined up with views espoused by state House Speaker Paul Renner, who in 2021 voted to create the Parents’ Bill of Rights and backed a major voucher expansion in 2023.

“We’re not libertarians with our kids on anything. Adults are a different story. They wanted to do all that stuff. That’s their business. And it’s a free country. But for our kids, we’ve got to protect them,” Renner told the Capital Tiger Bay Club in December, while speaking about restricting children’s access to social media sites.

Education lobbyists in Tallahassee said initial indications from the House are that it had little interest in changing the third grade retention law. Senate bill sponsor Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, showed little interest in backing down during the most recent hearing on the legislation.

Parents who don’t want their children retained can put their kids in private or homeschooling for a year to avoid it, he noted, and then bring them right back to public school for fifth grade.

“If we’re going to give parents a seat at the table, it has to be at every table and not just the ones we like and we’re OK with,” Simon said.

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Spotlight on education

The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.