New law shreds public education
On Jan. 4, the New Hampshire Legislature passed House Bill 542, a bill that took effect immediately and grants parents unprecedented powers to direct the education of their child in public schools.Specifically, the new law - sponsored by Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton - 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.But before offering my critique, let me emphasize the critical importance of parental input in a 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.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.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?The current law requires communities to teach fringe views and outright lies in their schools to the children 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?If a community is committed to developing 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 (see Pierce v. Society of Sisters) and our lower federal and state courts (see Davis v. Page, a New Hampshire case) have consistently found that a community's curriculum is controlled by the community's elected school board, not individual parents.At a time of shrinking school budgets, why would New Hampshire legislators pass a law that clearly violates established law, opening the door for hundreds of lawsuits - and additional legal costs to taxpayers - because local communities refuse to agree to every parent's request?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 Gov. John Lynch's veto of the bill.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 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.