Four big questions on new education law

Last modified: 1/20/2012 12:00:00 AM
The New Hampshire Legislature recently passed a law that grants parents unprecedented powers to direct the education of their child in public schools. Specifically, the law allows parents to file an objection to any course material and requires a school district to devise an alternative acceptable to the parent. The alternative must enable the child to still meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area of the objection. The law does not require objecting parents to offer any explanation for the curriculum change they are demanding for their child.

Below are four reasons why this new law is deeply flawed and needs to be challenged in the courts or radically amended by the Legislature. But first, let me emphasize the critical importance of parental input in their child's education - and the fact that our public schools already provide lines of communication for parents and community members to request changes to school policies and practices, including the curriculum. As an example, Bedford High School stopped using Barbara Ehrenreich's book, Nickel and Dimed, in a social studies course due to parent opposition and without the need of this law - even though Dunbarton Rep. J.R. Hoell, the sponsor, used this incident as a prime example why the new law was needed!

1. On what basis do advocates of the law argue that the personal preferences of individual parents override the collective decision-making of a community about its curriculum? Given limited resources, why shouldn't the community have final authority about the policies and practices of its public school system?

If your state representative voted for the law, ask why he or she privileged the views of any parent over that of the community, including the democratically elected school board that makes school policies and the professional educators hired by the board to carry out these policies. It's ironic that conservative legislators who are rabid about the importance of 'local control' won't allow local school boards to decide if they want to create policies that privilege parents' views over that of the school board. Stated another way, why are anti-'big government' legislators shoving a state law down the throats of local communities?

2. What is a school to do when parents say they don't want their child to learn about the Holocaust because it never happened, or that herbal cancer remedies are being ignored by the medical establishment and need to be taught in biology when studying diseases, or that earthquakes and floods are a sign of God's wrath (or the devil's work) and need to be included in the teaching of earth science? These are just a few examples of parental requests that can be lumped under the broad category of false beliefs that have been dismissed by experts and most New Hampshire citizens. The current law requires communities to teach fringe views and outright lies in their schools to the students of objecting parents.

3. What is a community to do when parents object to having their child leazrn about public policy issues that are being debated in the community, state or nation, especially given that citizenship education is an essential mission of public schooling?

New Hampshire's children - our future citizens - need to learn how to examine public policy issues from multiple perspectives, begin to formulate positions, and practice defending their views orally and in writing. These are skills needed by all adults to effectively participate in our democratic society.

If a community is committed to developing these and other democratic skills and understandings, why must it accept a parent's objection to this kind of educational experience?

And, over time, if enough students learn ridiculous fringe views and fail to learn how to participate in public dialogue, what will become of our democracy?

4. The U.S. Supreme Court and our lower federal and state courts have consistently found that a community's curriculum is controlled by the community's elected school board, not individual parents.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson wrote, 'If we are to eliminate everything that is objectionable to any (person) or is inconsistent with any of their doctrines, we will leave the public schools in shreds.'

At a time of shrinking school budgets why would New Hampshire legislators pass a law that is in clear violation of established law, thereby opening the door to potentially hundreds of lawsuits (and additional costs to taxpayers) because local communities refuse to agree to every parent's request for a modification to their child's public education?

I urge New Hampshire citizens to see where their representatives stand on this new law and the many other education bills working their way through the Legislature. For a full listing of education-related bills, go to the 'Defending New Hampshire Public Education' website.

If you're concerned about the shredding of our public schools by state legislators who are ideologically committed to radical notions of individual liberty, then it's time to engage your own citizenship action skills and do something about it.

(Joe Onosko of Portsmouth is an associate professor of education at the University of New Hampshire.)

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