Why New Hampshire lets parents have broad say over children's coursework

A new law in New Hampshire lets parents object to school coursework and request that their children learn alternative material. It may readjust the balance between parents' rights and educators' judgment. 

By , Staff writer

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    Schoolchildren arrive at Grinnell Elementary School in Derry, N.H. The state now requires all schools to develop a policy to respond to parental objection to classroom material.
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Parents in New Hampshire now have the broadest rights in the United States to demand alternatives for their children if they are concerned about what's being taught in a public school.

A new law here goes beyond student exemptions from sex education or health lessons, which are typical in other states and often must be based on religious grounds. It requires school districts to allow "an exception to specific course material based on a parent's ... determination that the material is objectionable."

Taking effect in January after the majority-Republican legislature overrode the Democratic governor's veto, the law does have some limits: An alternative for a child has to meet state requirements for the given subject area, be agreed to by the school, and be paid for by the parent.

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The law has stirred controversy over how to strike a balance between parents' rights and educators' judgment in determining what and how students should learn.

More broadly, the law raises the question, "How wide can we make the circle in our public schools in terms of helping families to feel welcomed and feel their beliefs and perspectives are accommodated?" says Robert Kunzman, an education professor at Indiana University in Bloomington who has studied homeschooling and the intersection of education and religion.

It's helpful for a community to make some accommodations and include students who might otherwise be pulled out for homeschooling, Professor Kunzman says. But "certainly there have to be limits to that, both in matters of practice and principle."

It won't be until school districts in New Hampshire begin to field requests from parents that the law's parameters will be more clearly drawn. Backers of the law offer different views of the scope they expect it to have, and administrators are asking what will happen if parents and school officials can't agree on an acceptable alternative.

"Parents love their children ... and they have real big issues with the current curriculum that has been shoved down their throat in some instances," says state Rep. JR Hoell (R), who sponsored the bill, HB 542. Representative Hoell and his wife homeschool their children.

But educators might find themselves caught between state and federal law, says Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association (NHSAA) in Concord, which opposed the bill.

The rhetoric swirling around the law has echoes of the "culture wars" in education over the past several decades, with Hoell suggesting parents can use it to object to everything from math instruction methods to what's included in history lessons. Parents might, for instance, seek phonics instead of whole-language instruction for their children, he says.

The original bill was even broader, saying districts could not "compel a parent to send his child to any school or program to which he may be conscientiously opposed." But the Senate worked with groups like NHSAA on compromise language. "We took a lot of care in how this would affect the school districts," says state Sen. Jim Forsythe (R), a backer of the law.

Two texts that proponents cite as examples of what New Hampshire parents have objected to in the past: "The Crack Cocaine Diet," a short story by Laura Lippman that deals with drug use and includes sexually explicit language; and "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," a book about low-wage work by Barbara Ehrenreich, which a family complained was pro-Marxist and anti-Christian.

One New Hampshire high school removed "The Crack Cocaine Diet" and several other short stories from a class curriculum in response to complaints in 2009.

Perhaps the new law will serve as a sort of "pressure release" in such situations – "a mechanism where your child can have an alternative, but that doesn't mean everyone else has to do that as well," says Kunzman of Indiana University. But "a potential downside," he says, "is that it sidesteps the need to have those broader public conversations around what's important for students to ... engage with, even if [the materials] are challenging and controversial."

Mr. Joyce of the school administrators group is concerned by an ideological thread he sees behind the law. "For 150 years, we've had a rich tradition in our country of public education as a general public good that benefits all taxpayers," he says, "yet here [is an] attempted shift of focus to say, 'No, it's really a private right that deserves to be controlled by the parent.' "

When Gov. John Lynch vetoed the bill last July, he raised similar concerns in a written statement: "The intrinsic value of education is exposing students to new ideas and critical thinking. This legislation encourages teachers to go [to] the lowest common denominator in selecting material, in order to avoid 'objections'...."

But with the override of that veto in early January, New Hampshire became a pioneering state by allowing "a parent to excuse a child from any area of the curriculum for any reason," says Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

A similar law passed last year in Arizona, although it is narrower. It allows parents to review learning materials and activities in advance, and they can request an alternative if they have objections to sexual, violent, profane, or vulgar content that they deem "harmful."

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