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Should parents get to overrule a teacher's choice of curriculum?

January 11, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
Should parents be able to prevent public school teachers from teaching subject matter they consider objectionable? The New Hampshire legislature just gave parents that right, overturning their governor's veto.

Paraphased, the law will "Require school districts to adopt a policy allowing an exception to specific course material based on a parent's or legal guardian's determination that the material is objectionable. Such policy shall include 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." To protect the privacy of students, the law also requires that the names of parents or guardians seeking this option be kept confidential, reports a blogger at Townhall.

The law apparently arose because parents of a high school student objected to him reading "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,' by Barbara Ehrenreich. The parents deemed the book an attack on capitalism and the American financial system. Another case that might have been on their minds arose in Lexington, Mass. in 2006 when parents filed a lawsuit after their second grader's teacher read the class a book about same sex marriage called "King and King," by Linda De Haan and Stern Nijland. The parents said the teacher should have informed them of the subject matter ahead of time and given them the opportunity to take the child out of the class while the book was being read. An appeals court later ruled in favor of the school system and said parents are not entitled to be informed of curriculum content or allowed to remove kids from class. Same sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts.

I'm not sure what book the parents of the teenager would consider an appropriate substitute or whether their choice would expose the boy to different ways of looking at the world or equip him to take part in class discussion on the topic, which is a big part of learning. I would guess that many teachers already are willing to make such accommodations for students, but there's also a chance that a law like this could have a chilling effect on education for all students if the accommodations are required by law.

Teachers and librarians and principals will undoubtedly be reluctant to choose material that could be considered even slightly objectionable by a "difficult" parent. In a small town every teacher is going to know exactly who those "difficult" parents are and might decide to forego teaching "King and King" or "Nickel and Dimed" until the following year, when Johnny isn't in the class. What does that mean for Johnny's classmates, who might benefit from reading those books or whose parents might want them to learn that material?

It's also going to be a nuisance for teachers to come up with individual lessons for each child whose parents object. If two or more parents object to the same lesson plan, how likely is it that each will submit their own idea of an acceptable substitute and the teacher will end up with kids doing multiple assignments?

It will be interesting to see how well this newly passed law in New Hampshire actually works.


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