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?
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?
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.
Joe Onosko of Portsmouth is an associate professor in the University of New Hampshire Education Department.