Battles over California schools’ transgender policies are raging in court. How’d we get here?

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State law requires that the attorney general give proposed ballot measures a neutral title when they are presented to the public to gather petition signatures.

But supporters hoping to get one initiative before voters in November took issue with what Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta named their would-be state law: “Restricts Rights of Transgender Youth.”

Under the proposed initiative, schools in the state would be required to notify parents if their child (anyone under 18) changes their gender identification unofficially, such as in conversation with friends or teachers, or in school records, like a roll sheet.

The initiative would also prohibit gender-affirming healthcare for transgender patients under 18, “even if parents consent or treatment is medically recommended,” according to the official summary of the initiative published by Bonta’s office. It also would repeal current state law that allows transgender athletes to participate in sports and use bathrooms consistent with their gender identity.

The initiative’s backers have sued the state over the title, calling it “misleading, false, and prejudicial.”

“They said a title that includes ‘protecting students’ could appeal to voters,” Times education reporter Howard Blume wrote this week. “One that focuses on limiting an individual’s rights might not.”

The pending lawsuit is among “several high-profile legal jousts in California’s education culture wars over policies that have taken hold mostly in a few deep red, inland or rural areas,” Howard noted.

Parental notification and bathroom bans are not the only issues. Restrictions have been placed on library books, as well as curriculum that highlights the nation’s history of slavery, racial inequities and LGBTQ+ issues. That drew the attention of Gov. Gavin Newsom, along with the state’s education department and attorney general, who threatened legal action against school boards in recent months. Some of those threats became lawsuits.

“Now, opposing sides are facing off in courtrooms with broad implications for state and local school policies,” Howard reported.

How we got here

The current legal battles are simply the latest salvo in an ideological battle that’s been playing out in school boards across the state.

The core of the issue is not new; it’s just the latest iteration of the long-running debate over the role of public education and how much influence parents should have over that system.

2023 survey data from Pew Research Center show that these partisan rifts have widened in recent years, with a majority of Republicans saying K-12 education is having a negative effect on the U.S.

Fueled by that dissatisfaction, conservative activists and school board members are focusing on local school boards, raising money to fund candidates who share their views on transgender issues and parental notification. And they’ve seen some political gains.

As Times reporters chronicled last year, the local-level political maneuverings are part of a well-coordinated effort backed by national conservative groups. That includes California Policy Center, Moms for Liberty, the Leadership Institute, Turning Point USA and evangelical megachurches.

But as several school boards passed parental notification policies aimed at gender-nonconforming students, the state pushed back, arguing they violate students’ privacy rights.

Protection or persecution?

One ongoing case is between the state and Chino Valley Unified, where the district’s parent-notification policy was initially deemed discriminatory against transgender students. In response, the Chino Valley Board of Education revised the policy by broadening it so that parents of any student would be notified of requests for a “change to their official or unofficial records.” A hearing for that case is set for May.

Chino Valley district leaders also approved a policy that allows parents to report books they deem unsuitable because of sexual content. The book would then be removed pending a public hearing to decide if it should be banned.

Supporters and opponents of the transgender notification policy face off outside the Orange Unified School District board meeting on Sept. 7. | Ringo Chiu / For The Times

Conservatives call efforts like these necessary to protect young children from sexually explicit and profane materials. But what some call protection, others call erasure and persecution. Those opposed to the conservative-led policies say they amount to racism and anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and will lead to more marginalization and harm for children.

“The people screaming for ‘parental rights’ are trying to take rights away from my kids while telling me how to raise them,” Kristi Hirst, leader of the Chino-based Our Schools USA, told Howard.

Similar battles over transgender student policies and restrictions on books and curriculum are raging in school districts across the state, including in Orange, Riverside, San Diego, San Bernardino, Shasta and Placer counties.

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