Live Free or Die: Curriculum Edition

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?

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