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GOP lawmakers' priorities on display as session drags on

In early September, N.C. Superintendent of Schools Catherine Pruitt told the State Board of Education that school systems need more time to comply with the controversial Parents Bill of Rights that became law in August when the Republican-led legislature overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.

The law requires educators to alert parents if their child changes his or her name or uses a different pronoun at school, restricts instruction about gender identity and sexuality in K-4 classrooms, requires parental consent for providing health care to children, requires parental permission to opt into surveys that ask questions about sexual behavior, illegal activity or mental health issues and requires school systems to more fully inform parents about how to object to materials or curriculum topics.

Except for the provision about providing health care, which doesn’t kick in until Dec. 1, the law went into effect Aug. 15, days before school started on Aug. 28.

Developing policies and procedures to comply will take hours of meetings and significant resources at a time when many school systems are still trying to find teachers to fill vacancies. If this were a law that promised to better prepare North Carolina students to navigate a world where those with nimble discernment and critical thinking skills will be best positioned to thrive, implementing it would be a good investment of time and resources. But, to the contrary, it’s a law that’s unnecessary, intrusive, likely disruptive and potentially harmful. It’s hard to see how this law furthers the primary function of public schools, which is to educate students and provide them with the skills they need to be contributing members of society.

It’s even harder to think of a praise-worthy reason GOP lawmakers would spend the 2023 session, which began in January, hashing out divisive bills like this one and another one that denies treatment to young people with gender dysphoria, when they couldn’t be bothered to pass a 2023-2024 budget, the most fundamental thing their constituents send them to Raleigh to do. There can be little doubt, both these laws are an attempt to marginalize a very small number of vulnerable young people.

Tamika Walker-Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators, the state’s largest teachers’ group, told WRAL news in Raleigh that teachers are most concerned with the effect the new Parents Bill of Rights law will have on LGBTQ+ students and families, especially the provision that requires schools to inform parents if a student is questioning their own gender.

“We know that not every student who comes to us at school has a caring adult, and sometimes the educator or the school personnel is that caring adult for that student,” she said. “It is our responsibility, part of our professional standards and code of ethics, to think about first the priority of the student, their health and safety. We will continue to navigate that as educators, but this provision in the law does make that a lot more difficult.”

In the fall of 2022, the news agency Reuters worked with the health technology company Komodo Health Inc. to identify the number of young people, ages 6 to 17, in the United States who sought and received gender-affirming care between 2017 and 2021.

Komodo’s analysis draws on full or partial health insurance claims for about 330 million U.S. patients, including those covered by private health plans and public insurance like Medicaid. The data included roughly 40 million patients annually between ages 6 and 17.

In 2021, the total number of young people diagnosed and/or treated for gender dysphoria, which is defined as distress caused by a discrepancy between a person’s gender identity and the one assigned to them at birth, was about 42,000. The total U.S. number over the five-year period was 121,882.

Putting that into context, during the 2020-2021 school year, approximately 1.6 million students attended North Carolina public and charter schools. North Carolina makes up about 3.2 percent of the total U.S. population of about 340 million. That means there are likely less than 1,500 students in the entire state of North Carolina, where there are 2,500-plus public schools, who experience gender dysphoria. Why would state lawmakers spend time targeting such a small and vulnerable number of students instead of passing a budget that will hopefully give the state’s poorly paid teachers a raise?

It is especially concerning given the evidence that youth who suffer from gender dysphoria are at high risk of severe depression and suicide. A study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that receipt of gender-affirming care in one small cohort of transgender and nonbinary youth was associated with 60 percent lower odds of moderate or severe depression and 73 percent lower odds of suicidality over a 12-month follow-up. There can be little doubt that decreased social support and increased stigma likely to result from legislators meddling in very private matters will almost certainly lead to increased mental health problems for this small group of young people.

Meanwhile the calendar rolled toward mid-September with the state’s citizens still waiting for a budget that should’ve been passed with the start of the fiscal year July 1. Will teachers get a hefty raise? Will per pupil funding for schools increase significantly to give them the resources they need to prepare North Carolina students to navigate a world of evolving technology? A report published by the Education Law Center found that per-pupil funding in North Carolina ranked lower than any other state, when compared to the state’s wealth. In terms of total funding per pupil, the state fell from 46th in 2008 to 48th in 2020, according to the report.

Will these metrics change as a result of the 2023-2024 budget? If not, it’s pretty clear that GOP lawmakers think fighting a manufactured culture war against a small vulnerable group of young people is more important than providing an adequate education for the state’s entire student population.

Joy Franklin is a journalist and writer who served as editorial page editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times for 10 years. Prior to that she served as executive editor of the Times-News in Hendersonville, N.C. Franklin writes for Carolina Commentary

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