Law could 'leave public schools in shreds', OpEd by Joe Onosco, Portsmouth Herald, 1/24/12

posted Jan 27, 2012, 5:17 AM by Bill Duncan

This piece has appeared in most of the major state papers. People copy it, pass it around, read it aloud to meetings. It captures the destructiveness of this one paragraph bill the was, according to the author, the first step in putting mini-private schools within the public schools.

HB 1575 is his follow up to that, providing for setting up whole private curricula within the public schools.

Law could 'leave public schools in shreds'
By Joe Onosko
January 24, 2012 2:00 AM

The New Hampshire Legislature on Jan. 4 passed Rep. J.R. Hoell's (R-Dunbarton) HB 542, a law that took effect immediately and grants parents unprecedented powers to direct the education of their children in public schools. Specifically, the law (a) allows parents to file an objection to any course material, (b) requires a school district to devise an alternative acceptable to the parent, and (c) 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 children.

Below are four reasons why HB 542 is deeply flawed and needs to be challenged in the courts or radically amended by the New Hampshire Legislature. Before offering my critique, let me emphasize the critical importance of parental input in their children's education, and the fact that our public schools already provide formal and informal lines of communication for parents and community members to request changes to school policies and practices, including the curriculum. As an example, Bedford High stopped using (Barbara) Ehrenreich's book, "Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America," due to parent opposition and, I must emphasize, without the need of HB 542 — even though Hoell illogically used this incident as a prime reason why 542 was needed!

First, 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? If your state representative voted for the law, ask why he or she privileged the views of any parent over that of the democratically elected school board that makes school policies (and the professional educators who carry out these policies). 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 in their schools 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 (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. In McCollum v. the Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court Justice 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 clearly violates established law, opening the door for hundreds of lawsuits (and additional legal costs to taxpayers) because local communities refuse to agree to each parent's request?

I urge New Hampshire citizens to see where their representatives stand on this new law and many other pending education bills, 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 Web site,

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; that is, 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. Also shocking is that two-thirds of the House and Senate voted to override Gov. 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 (including the privatization or "marketing" of the public schools), then it's time to engage your own citizenship action skills and do something about it.

Joe Onosko is a Portsmouth resident and associate professor in the University of New Hampshire Education Department.