Some 177 bills that would regulate school operations, climate or curriculum so as to limit teacher or student self-expression have been introduced across the country this year, according to PEN America, an organization that advocates for free expression. This number outstrips the 174 introduced in 2022 and the 42 in 2021.
Between January 2021 and June 2023, 38 were enacted, and nine policies were adopted via executive order or regulatory measures at the state level, according to a report released on Wednesday by the organization. The vast majority of the measures introduced and passed apply to K-12 schools.
The bills indirectly prompt self-censorship in schools, restrict student expression or enable a minority of parents to steer decisions impacting the majority, according to the report.
Many of the bills noted by PEN America are at the heart of the culture wars taking place in schools nationwide. Examples include proposals that would require schools to report a students' gender expression or sexual orientation to their parents; permit direct surveillance via online video feed or in-person of classrooms; and require all professional development sessions to be open for public attendance.
On one hand, policymakers, advocates, parents and others in mostly conservative areas are in favor of so-called parental rights. The term has become an umbrella for measures ranging from restricting curriculum on LGBTQ+ or race-related topics to restricting facility access for transgender students.
At the same time, other members of the same stakeholder groups say those restrictions create a culture of fear among school staff and students, negatively impacting school climate as well as learning on subjects like race and gender.
"While most proposed bills have not become law, their breadth demonstrates the spirit of experimentation increasingly common in state legislatures," according to PEN America's report. Report authors also note that "many, perhaps hundreds, of local districts are experimenting with similar ideas."
These bills coincide with surveys of educators suggesting that politicization and misinformation are hampering their job, school climate or their mental health. According to a survey released in July by RAND Corp., superintendents cited "the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling" as their most common source of stress.
Another survey, this one from 2022 and released by Teachers Pay Teachers, found that parents and politicians are the top sources of "a lot of stress" for teachers.
All but 15 of the 392 bills introduced since January 2021 and tracked by PEN America were sponsored by Republicans.