WASHINGTON — FOR Tony Seminerio, a state assemblyman in New York, the spur was hearing about a Schenectady classroom conundrum asking elementary-school students who in their family they would save if they could only save one. Or to describe their body parts and the anatomical differences between a boy and girl.
``I felt that parents should have the right to review the literature'' taught to their children, he says.
So he introduced a Parental Rights Amendment to the state constitution. It reads: ``The right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children shall not be infringed.''
The same amendment has been introduced in four other states. Statehouse members in five more have promised to sponsor the amendment in their next legislative sessions.
The Parental Rights Amendment is supported by a national lobbying group called ``Of the People,'' headed by Jeffrey Bell, a conservative strategist who has worked for Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.
The purpose of the amendment is to strengthen the legal standing and authority of parents in schooling and curriculum, in health matters such as abortion and condom distribution, and in courts against lawsuits from their children.
Although some supporters, such as Mr. Seminerio, are Democrats, this drive is part of a larger effort by conservative Republicans to find a politically effective way to discuss social and family issues.
``We want to change the grounds of the debate,'' Mr. Bell says. The Equal Rights Amendment for women failed to enter the United States Constitution, he notes, but still changed the national debate about women's rights. So he hopes that a discussion of parents' rights can shift the terms of debate surrounding children.
``This is a way to put the other side on the defensive,'' he says.
And to get conservatives off the defensive about social issues, where they have been stuck since 1992, when archconservative Pat Buchanan set a tone of dark moral disapproval on opening night of the GOP convention that many Republicans thought it never recovered from. Also, then-Vice President Dan Quayle was roasted for months for one glancing but uncomplimentary reference to the unwed motherhood of ``Murphy Brown,'' a fictional TV character.
``The conservatives have been burned; they feel themselves to have been burned, on social issues,'' Bell says. Now, he adds with a measure of both respect and chagrin, President Clinton talks more about family values than most Republican leaders.
Republicans need to get back in the game, however, according to Bell, who believes that social and cultural questions are becoming increasingly central in politics and elections.
Bell and other Republican thinkers are stressing the need for stronger authority and autonomy of the family, the most basic and traditional social institution.
John Walters, a former deputy to William Bennett when he was drug czar in the Bush administration, is president of another new group backed largely by conservatives, the New Citizenship Project, which is looking for ways to return stronger authority to traditional institutions - beginning with the family.
``When you talk to parents, their control over what their kids are exposed to - particularly in school - is increasingly slim,'' he says. ``The state is a poor substitute for parents,'' yet the authority of parents has eroded in order to deal with extreme cases of irresponsible parents.
The parental-rights drive is potentially a way to give parents a stronger sense of control over the education and welfare of their children, Mr. Walters says.
But the appeal of this drive may be limited, according to Andrew Kohut, director of the Times-Mirror Center, which does regular public-opinion polling on political and other questions. The Parental Rights Amendment is likely to appeal most to ``people who have paranoia about the social left taking over America, and that's a very small handful.''
``What most parents are concerned about are that their kids aren't being trained very well to get a job,'' Mr. Kohut says.
Bell acknowledges that many parents have acquiesced as their responsibilities have increasingly been assumed by experts in education, social work, medical, and other helping professions. ``There's been a lot of retreat of parents from parenting,'' he says. Somewhat demoralized, many feel ``like they're in a support role to the education establishment.''
It is from these helping professions, who often deal with the children of the most dysfunctional parents, that Bell expects the most resistance to parental rights.
Indeed, Assemblyman Seminerio is not at all optimistic that his proposed amendment can get out of committee in the New York Assembly, where it is encountering influential resistance from the staff members of the education committee. ``To them, it's like we're infringing on the rights of teachers,'' he says.
A similar amendment has already been defeated in the Kansas House of Representatives, where one opponent dubbed it the ``David Koresh amendment,'' a reference to the late cult leader in Waco, Texas.
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank, is skeptical of the amendment. ``There ought to be a good debate in this country about who is responsible for the welfare of children,'' he says. ``What's disappointing is that conservatives would be adding to the clamor for expanding rights and entitlements.''