The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment: A Toolkit for Parents

As the Supreme Court has repeatedly said, parents have the ultimate authority over their children’s education. And yet schools often ignore parents’ rights. School systems, administrators, and teachers often treat parents with contempt and disdain simply for asking what their children are learning and what values schools are promoting.

The Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, 20 U.S.C. § 1232h, is one important—but until now little-used—tool for holding administrators and teachers accountable. First passed in 1974 and then expanded several times (most recently in 2002), the PPRA provides parents legal rights to review curriculum, and in some circumstances to opt out of certain activities at any school that receives federal funding.

Some states have laws that empower parents directly to find out what local public teachers and administrators are up to.  But it is important to recognize that federal law allows parents to review curriculum and prevents schools from asking highly personal questions about students’ sex lives, drug usage, and things of that nature without parental consent. At the end of the day, parents must be vigilant, and must be willing to fight for their children. The PPRA should be one valuable tool for doing so.

** This is for your general informational purposes only. It is not legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship between you and AFL. **

What does the PPRA cover?

The PPRA provides parents with a right to review curriculum used to teach their child at school. It also provides an even more extensive set of rights to review, and opt out, of certain surveys and studies that probe into the children’s lives and attitudes.

Curriculum

Parents have the right to inspect “any instructional material” used as part of the education curriculum for the student. The parent who wants to exercise this right must request the material; the school does not have to provide access to the material without being asked first. Parents should demand that schools disclose teacher training materials designed to affect or direct student instruction as “instructional material.”

Surveys

Without parental consent, schools cannot require a student to answer questions about:

  • Political beliefs or affiliations
  • Mental problems or challenges
  • Sexual behavior or attitudes
  • Illegal, antisocial, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior
  • Critical appraisals of people with close family relationships
  • Relationships with lawyers, physicians, and ministers
  • Religious beliefs or practices
  • Income level (unless it’s asked simply regarding eligibility to participate in a program)

If the school wants to distribute or administer a survey created by an outside entity (not the school), the parent has the right to review the survey first, along with any supplemental material (including teacher’s manuals) that come with the survey. The parent must request this; the school does not have to provide copies without being asked first. Critically, this applies to all gender and race-related materials.

Certain school districts have retained survey and data mining companies.  These companies sell race-focused student and teacher surveys, data management tools, and training on systemic racism and oppression, white supremacy, implicit bias, gender issues, and intersectionality, often under the rubric of “Social-Emotional Learning.” If parents are engaged and object, then none this sort of material should be forced on children. But if parents are disengaged and silent, the PPRA and other laws are ineffective.

Personal information to be sold

Parents must be notified and given a chance to opt their child out any time the school is going to collect personal identifying information from their child when that information would then be sold. This includes the child’s the parents’ names, home address, phone numbers, and Social Security numbers, as well as any other identifying information that could be connected to the student. (There is an exception if this is for the development of educational products for students or schools.) It is not clear whether racial and gender data mining that occurs under the “Social-Emotional Learning” rubric is subject to the PPRA’s privacy provisions, but it is an issue parents should raise and explore.

Physical examinations

Parents must be notified and given a chance to opt their child out of any invasive physical examinations that are not emergencies. The law considers an examination “invasive” if it involves exposure of private body parts or any insertion of an instrument into the body (other than hearing, vision, or scoliosis screening).

Who is covered?

Schools

The statute applies to any school that receives federal funding. Public schools receive federal funds in the form of various grants and program funds. Some private schools also receive federal funds if they participate in federal programs.

Parents and Children

The statute provides rights to the parents so long as the child is under age 18. After the child turns 18, the rights of parents under the statute transfer to the now-adult student.

What does the school have to do?

The school must provide the parents with a notification when it wants to ask students about any of the matters listed in the law—surveys about sensitive personal matters and personally-identifying information that would be sold. It should ask the parents for written consent for their child to participate in any study that the school is requiring. If the parents do not consent, then the school, in theory, is prohibited from requiring the child to participate.

The school is also required to come up with a set of standard policies that it will follow to notify parents and obtain consent when needed. The school needs to provide notification to the parents at least once per year.

Often, the school will provide notice at the beginning of the year, in a perfunctory or highly technical way, to meet its legal obligations but without providing parents with real, actionable information.  Again, parent vigilance and engagement are critical.

What can parents do under the PPRA?

Parents can request information directly from their school district with something as simple as a letter or an email that says:

Under the Protection of Pupil Rights Amendment, 20 U.S.C § 1232h, I request the following:

  • Immediate access to all curriculum material, including teacher training materials, used in [specify class]
  • Copies of all surveys and related documents given to my child during the past school year, and copies of the opt-out notifications you provided to parents, asking for information concerning or related to —
    • political affiliations or beliefs of the student or the student’s parent;
    • mental or psychological problems of the student or the student’s family;
    • sex behavior or attitudes;
    • illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, or demeaning behavior;
    • critical appraisals of other individuals with whom respondents have close family relationships (this should include all material related to “white privilege” or “anti-racism”);
    • legally recognized privileged or analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers;
    • religious practices, affiliations, or beliefs of the student or student’s parent; or
    • income (other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under such program).

If schools do not fulfill their obligations under the PPRA, parents can report violations to the U.S. Department of Education using the form provided at https://studentprivacy.ed.gov/file-a-complaint. Complaints must be made within 180 days of the date of the violation.

What can the U.S. Department of Education do?

Upon learning of a violation, the U.S. Department of Education is charged with investigating and adjudicating violations. The Secretary of Education can terminate a school’s federal funding if the school has violated the law and refuses to voluntarily comply.

What can you do if the U.S. Department of Education refuses or fails to act?

Parents have a variety of potential options if the U.S. Department of Education refuses of fails to act. These include:

  • Suing the Department, the offending school district, and the individuals involved.
  • Filing an administrative petition asking the Department to stop funding the offending school district.
  • Asking your congressman or senator to investigate.
  • Asking your state representative and/or your state attorney general to investigate.
  • Engaging in direct political action, e.g. petitions, school board protests, state or local curriculum and survey transparency laws and electing new school board members who will follow the law.

**Consult an attorney to discuss what makes sense for you.**