Giving Parents a Peek at School Lesson Plans

New bill winding its way through Congress would let them review materials.

When a group of parents in Chapel Hill, N.C., obtained the reading materials for the school system's "multicultural action plan for the promotion of respect for diversity," they were upset by what they saw.

A required English course included works by gay and lesbian authors that contained material the school board would not allow to be read out at a public meeting, says John Reinhard, a biologist whose son is a local high school student.

"If the salacious depiction of homosexual, sadomasochistic behavior might be inappropriate for a school-board meeting, why would it be suitable for our children?" Mr. Reinhard asked a recent hearing of a House subcommittee.

Opinions about what is or isn't appropriate for school use vary widely. Some parents' groups have objected to students reading Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" because it ends in teenage suicide, or Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" because it deals with witchcraft.

So a group of mostly conservative House Republican lawmakers has responded to complaints from parents about the content of school curricula, tests, and surveys, introducing the Parental Freedom of Information Act.

The proposal would require states and local schools to let parents review textbooks, manuals, and audiovisual materials used in the classroom. In addition, parents would have the right to see any testing materials administered to students, except for copyrighted exams. The measure would also require written permission from a parent before any student could be required to undergo any medical, psychological, or psychiatric testing or treatment while at school, except in emergencies.

In the event of a dispute, the measure provides for mediation and arbitration at the school district's expense.

The bill's sponsors, led by Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R) of Kansas, say they mean to clarify the 1974 Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, which requires that parents have the right to their children's school records.

"This legislation is about removing barriers from including parents in their children's education," Representative Tiahrt says. He says he introduced the legislation after "an alarming number" of cases in which parents had to file lawsuits to gain access to materials used in schools. "Plain and simple, parents should not have to go into the courtroom to find out what is going on in their child's classroom."

Ahead of the curve

Some school districts already have these types of policies in place. Jim Means, principal of Wichita High School West in Wichita, Kan., told the subcommittee that public schools in his city allow parents to inspect any instructional materials, including teacher's manuals.

"Need for this policy became apparent as district programs approached sensitive materials, such as sex and AIDS education, [and] advisement programs, which included goal-setting and decisionmaking," Mr. Means said. "Also some parents had voiced concern about surveys given in the school setting which inquired about issues which those parents felt were private family matters or were not relevant to the educational programs of the school."

The policy gives parents the right to request that their children "opt out" of sex and AIDS education. "Though the efforts are time intensive, they do provide the school, students, and parents ... a certain sense of security that these issues are understood by all parties involved," Means said.

Friends in high places

The Tiahrt proposal has some powerful friends: House majority leader Dick Armey (R) and majority whip Tom DeLay (R), both of Texas, are among the co-sponsors. But the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union, is taking a wait-and-see approach to the bill. "We're still in the question stage," says Adele Robinson, an NEA lobbyist. "We certainly don't have a problem with parents seeing the curriculum. That's not an issue."

Among things the NEA wants to clear up is whether the bill would preempt state requirements that teachers and administrators investigate and report suspected child abuse. As it is written now, the bill makes exceptions only for federal child-abuse laws.

"How would this bill practically work, and will it benefit children, or is there a chilling effect created that would be to the detriment of those children who need that help?" Ms. Robinson asks.

The union also wants to clarify the definitions of terms such as "psychological."

"When I give an essay test about 'The Crucible' or about the actions that Romeo and Juliet took, is that a psychological exam?" Robinson asks. If a teacher suspects a student is being sexually harassed or is smoking in the bathroom and asks about it, is that prying into that student's life?

Other critics say the bill goes in the wrong direction by setting federal mandates for matters that should be left up to states and school boards. Larry Davis of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, a group that opposes both federal-education requirements and national teachers' unions, called for a policy that state officials and school boards could use to develop their own approaches to parental access.

The bill was up for consideration last week by the full House Committee on Education and the Workforce, but was pulled for further work. Tiahrt says he expects the committee to send it to the House floor as part of another measure within two weeks.

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