RALEIGH, N.C. – Public school teachers in North Carolina would be required in most circumstances to alert parents before they call a student by a different name or pronoun, under a bill passed by the Republican-controlled state Senate on Tuesday.
Senators rejected a wave of warnings that the measure could endanger some LGBTQ students who have unsupportive families.
While sponsors say the bill is needed to keep parents informed about what their children are being taught in public schools, critics say it would destroy the trust between teachers and their students and make schools unsafe spaces for LGBTQ and questioning children to explore their identities at their own pace.
The proposal, which passed the Senate 29-18, would also prohibit instruction about gender identity and sexuality in K-4 classrooms, with an exception for “student-initiated questions.”
It now heads to the House, where Republicans are one seat shy of a supermajority and likely would need some Democratic support to push it through. A similar version had passed the Senate last session but didn't get a vote in the House.
Some parents, teachers and students who testified in committee hearings blasted the bill as an attempt at censorship, likening it to the Florida law that opponents dubbed “ Don’t Say Gay.” Others applauded the proposal for keeping what they considered inappropriate topics out of elementary classes.
Bill sponsor Sen. Amy Galey, an Alamance County Republican, refuted criticisms Tuesday that it might jeopardize the physical safety of transgender and nonbinary students who could be outed to their parents without consent. She pointed again to an exception in the bill that would keep parents from accessing school records if there’s reason to believe it would lead to abuse or neglect.
“Parents are the primary decisionmakers with respect to their minor children — not their school or even the children themselves," Galey said on the Senate floor. "Parental rights are most important in matters of medical and health-related decisions.”
While Senate Democrats criticized the measure during floor debate, they and their House counterparts have offered an alternative bill they say protects both parents and students without putting LGBTQ children at risk.
First-term Sen. Lisa Grafstein, a Wake County Democrat and the only out LGBTQ state senator, shared a personal anecdote and urged anyone with doubts to reject the measure.
“I want you to be sure to ask yourself this now: Will you be sure that you did no harm by passing this bill, and not one young person will feel like they're trapped and have no one to trust?" she said. "That not one young person will be outed to an abusive parent?”
Lawmakers in at least 23 other states are considering similar bills, constitutional amendments or both. A Missouri bill debated in committee on Tuesday would go farther than the North Carolina proposal, allowing only licensed mental health providers to talk to students about gender identity and LGBTQ issues in K-12 public schools, and only if guardians first give permission.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper told reporters Tuesday morning that he's concerned the North Carolina bill could have similar economic consequences to a 2016 bill that had restricted transgender access to public restrooms and blocked cities from enacting new anti-discrimination ordinances.
Widely considered the blueprint for the present wave of nationwide anti-trans legislation, that measure, which has since been rolled back, cost North Carolina hundreds of millions in revenue as businesses, athletic tournaments and conventions cut ties.
“Not only are these kinds of bills wrong in and of themselves because they hurt people, but they also have the great potential to hurt our economy and to upset this balance that we created,” Cooper said after a meeting with the state's elected executive officials.
Cooper had signaled last year that he likely would have vetoed the 2022 bill had it reached his desk. He did not indicate Tuesday whether he would veto the new version but said he opposes it.
House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters on Monday that prospects looked promising in his chamber but that he didn’t anticipate the measure would be fast-tracked. He said discussions so far within the House have been broad and suggested that another version of the measure could be proposed.
“I think we’ll get a hearing on it (in the House). I think it will successfully pass," Moore said. "I hope it does so in a bipartisan way.”
Moore has said he expects some Democrats will join Republicans to complete veto overrides this session, but he hasn’t identified the topics on which they could. Democratic unity has yet to be tested by an override vote this session.
Rep. Vernetta Alston, a Durham County Democrat and another of the state's few out LGBTQ lawmakers, said she's confident Democrats will stand united against the bill if it reaches an override vote. She said it undermines educators and distracts from “the carnage that a decade of underfunding has left in our schools.”
Hannah Schoenbaum is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.