In all the excitement in the buildup to the New Hampshire primary, one important educational development seems to have gotten overshadowed. Last week, a New Hampshire law allowing parents to demand alternatives to curricular materials that they find objectionable took effect. It could have far reaching consequences not just in the Granite State but—if it catches on—for schools across the country.
Specifically, the law (which was passed over the governor’s veto) requires all districts to adopt a policy that:
“…include[s] a provision requiring the parent or legal guardian to notify the school principal or designee in writing of the specific material to which they object and a provision requiring an alternative agreed upon by the school district and the parent, at the parent’s expense, sufficient to enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area.”
Do parents not have a right to ask that assignments not insult their beliefs and teachings?
In a post on Curriculum Matters last week, Erik Robelen explained that New Hampshire Governor John Lynch “said the measure was too vague about what might be deemed objectionable and would prove burdensome to school districts. He also said it risked stifling teachers, who might shy away from exposing students to ‘new ideas and critical thinking’ for fear of sparking complaints.”
Governor Lynch went on to say that the legislation “encourages teachers to go to the lowest common denominator in selecting material, in order to avoid 'objections' and the disruptions it may cause their classrooms.”
Of course, it’s reasonable to wonder whether such policies will lead to abuse. Teachers cannot, after all, craft individualized lessons on every topic to cater to the whims of parents.
And it’s impossible to read about this kind of curricular debate without wondering whether this is just a back-door way for creationists to oppose teaching about evolution or to force lessons on intelligent design. But the questions raised by this law are actually both larger and more nuanced than that.
For example, shouldn’t parents exercise some control over what their children learn? In fact, public schools—as we know them today—actually started out as publicly funded Protestant schools that used the King James Version of the Bible in class and included overt anti-Catholic (not to mention anti-Jewish) teaching. At the time, Catholic and Jewish parents had no recourse, and so created their own system of privately funded schools.
Of course, starting an alternative system of education is an extreme—and one unlikely to be replicated. But we have seen a big increase in homeschooling fueled, in part, by a feeling among many parents that their values are being undermined by their public schools.
For instance, the parents of one New Hampshire high school student were outraged when their child was assigned Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America in the school’s finance class. They complained about the book’s pro-Marxist, anti-Christian references and asked that it be removed from the curriculum. (The boy’s parents complained that “Jesus is referred to as a wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist,” and the education bill’s main sponsor, Rep. J. R. Hoell, cited this incident in its defense, arguing that the “admittedly Marxist” book “insulted Christians and promoted illegal drug use as well as being critical of American family life.”)
The school district defended the book, arguing that its “instructional value outweighs its shortcomings.” But at what cost?
This is a dicey issue, to be sure. Taken to its extreme, such objections could lead to the banning of classic works of literature or the indoctrination of particular points of view in fairly homogeneous communities. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss these developments as one big creationist conspiracy. Do parents not have a right to ask that assignments not insult their beliefs and teachings? Perhaps a little more flexibility and sensitivity to the values of the kids we serve is in order?