The New Hampshire Legislature on Jan. 4 passed Dunbarton Rep. J.R. Hoell’s House Bill 542, a law that grants parents unprecedented powers to direct the education of their child in public schools.
Specifically, the law allows parents to object to any course material, requires school districts to devise an alternative acceptable to parents, and doesn’t require parents to offer an explanation for the curriculum change they are demanding.
Below are four reasons why HB 542 is deeply flawed and needs to be challenged in the courts or radically amended by the Legislature.
Before offering my critique, let me emphasize the critical importance of parental input in their child’s education, and that public schools already provide formal and informal lines of communication for parents and community members to request changes to school policies, including the curriculum.
As an example, Bedford High School stopped using Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed” due to parent opposition and without the need of HB 542, even though Rep. Hoell illogically cited this incident as a prime example why the law was needed.
First, on what basis do advocates of the law argue that any parent’s belief about any curriculum-related matter trumps the community’s long history and collective wisdom about how best to educate its children? Given limited resources, why shouldn’t the democratically elected school board have final authority?
It’s quite ironic that conservative legislators who are rabid about the importance of “local control” won’t allow local communities 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?
Also, 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 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, “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 to the students of objecting parents.
In addition, what is a community to do when a parent objects to having his or her child learn about local, state and national public policy issues, especially given that citizenship education is an essential mission of public schools?
Young people —our future citizens — need to learn how to examine 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?
Finally, the U.S. Supreme Court (in Pierce v. Society of Sisters) and lower federal and state courts (Davis v. Page, a New Hampshire case) have consistently found that a community's curriculum is properly controlled by the community’s elected school board, not individual parents. In McCollum v. Board of Education, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. 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 pass a law that clearly violates established law, opening the door for lawsuits (and legal costs to taxpayers) because local communities refuse to agree to every parent’s request?
And there’s more legislation pending, including HB 1148 that requires science teachers to say that evolution is just one of many theories that explain species change, and HB 1607 that establishes a tax credit for businesses that contribute scholarship monies for students attending private schools, thereby redirecting state monies to support private schools. For a full listing of current education bills, go to the “Defending New Hampshire Public Education” website.
If HB 542 sounds pretty crazy, it is. I know of no other state in the nation that has enacted such radical and sweeping legislation. Also shocking is that two-thirds of the House and Senate voted to override Governor Lynch’s veto of the bill.
For many decades New Hampshire has competed for the very top spot among our 50 states on National Assessment of Educational Progress and SAT test score results, the two most reliable national indicators of school performance.
If you’re concerned about the current shredding of our public schools by state legislators who are ideologically committed to radical notions of individual liberty (such as HB 542) and the belief that what is good for a community is best achieved by an unregulated, competitive marketplace, then it’s time to engage your own citizenship action skills.
Joe Onosko of Portsmouth is an associate professor in the University of New Hampshire Education Department.