On Halloween, nothing makes Jean Swenson's elementary-school music students happier than to listen to eerie music and stomp around the room like Frankenstein. Mrs. Swenson generally indulges that desire. But there's a catch: Any child from a family of Jehovah's Witnesses must opt out of that lesson.
"It creates an uncomfortable situation," says Swenson, who teaches music at a public elementary school in New Hampton, Iowa. It is a largely Roman Catholic town with a sprinkling of Jehovah's Witnesses, who don't celebrate holidays. "The Christmas concert is even worse," she says. "I often wish I could just stop doing it altogether."
Each holiday season, public school teachers face a dilemma. They must accommodate both parents who love traditional celebrations, and that smaller number who - for religious or other reasons - don't want their children singing in a Christmas choir or drawing scary pictures of a goblin.
But lately it isn't just holidays that pose a problem. Groups who track these kind of protests say that in the last few years the number of parents requesting special exemptions for their children from certain classroom activities - holiday celebrations, health or sexuality courses, gym, and even reading "Harry Potter" - is on the rise.
"A generation ago parents who had such concerns were more likely to say nothing or just keep the child home on that day," says Robert O'Neil, director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for Protection of Free Expression, at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.
But today, he says, with more organizations in existence willing to litigate such concerns on the behalf of parents, they've grown bolder about speaking out.
Interestingly enough, says O'Neil, if anything, wary textbook publishers and school administrators have gone out of their way in recent years to avoid contentious topics, so the materials presented in today's classrooms are probably less controversial than ever.
But that has done little, he says, to temper "the greater willingness of parents to speak out on the points they don't like."
Certainly the highest profile cases of late have been the ones revolving around the enormously popular "Harry Potter" books. The books' focus on witchcraft and wizardry has alarmed some parents and parents' groups - particularly fundamentalist Christians - and many have asked to have their children exempted from classes that include the books.
"These things come in waves, and right now because of 'Harry Potter,' we're at the crest of a wave," says Eliot Mincberg, vice president and legal director of People for the American Way Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based group concerned with First Amendment rights.
But Mr. Mincberg says, while the "Harry Potter" issue may come and go, it touches on a more fundamental question involving parents' rights. Until fairly recently, he explains, the Supreme Court tended to back requests for religious exemptions from courses or materials deemed objectionable by parents.
Since 1991, however, the court's record has tilted towards creating less of a legal obligation for schools to grant exemptions. And that change, Mincberg suggests, may have had the effect of fueling more parental protests.
That's not to say there's been a great increase in school systems digging their heels in and forcing kids to sit through lessons their parents are unhappy about. The bulk of principals and teachers continue to tactfully accommodate such concerns and simply slip the child out of class, perhaps offering an alternative assignment or activity - a decision many consider a sage one.
"That's not cowardice, it's wisdom," says O'Neil. "Losing a lawsuit is potentially far more disruptive than simply making quiet accommodations."
Schools push back
But in several cases in recent months school systems have decided they'd rather fight than accommodate.
In Leebaert v. Harrington, a Fairfield, Conn., case filed earlier this month, seventh-grader Corky Leebaert was told he must attend health class or risk a failing grade. Corky's parents, however, objected to the sexual nature of some of the material to be covered by the course and took their son out of the class. At the end of the year, Corky received a failing grade.
"Connecticut law requires the teaching of health," says Steven Levy, an attorney for the school system in the case, citing a state law passed in 1971 making health a mandatory school topic.
But the real issue involved, says Mr. Levy, is protecting "a compelling government interest in educating our children to certain minimum standards."
If too many parents worry about exempting their children out of topics they don't like, he asks, how can the state fulfill its obligation to educate students properly? Taken to an extreme, he points out, ridiculous situations could begin to arise.
"Some parents would say you can't teach George Washington because he owned slaves. Others might say 'I'm a feminist and I don't want my child studying wars caused by men.' "
The bottom line, he says, is "you can't have parents rewriting curriculum for every kid."
In a similar case pending in a New Hampshire court, the judge recently ruled that the child in question must attend health class -despite the sexual material her parents object to -while the case is being settled.
But in Plano, Texas, where a different kind of court case is under way, the stances taken by the Connecticut and New Hampshire schools are exactly what some parents most object to.
"They think they know what's best for your children, and they don't want you in there," says Kenny Johnson, father of two school-age daughters. He and five other parents are suing the Plano school district for teaching their children math using a program called Connected Math.
Mr. Johnson and some other parents don't like Connected Math, calling it "fuzzy math" and insisting it fails to adequately prepare kids to do more advanced math. They called for the school system to exempt their children from Connected Math and to offer them an alternative course using traditional teaching methods.
The school system has refused that request. As a result, Johnson has put his children in private school. But he's pursuing the lawsuit, calling it a matter of concern for all members of American society. "Civil rights and all the freedoms in this country apply everywhere but in public schools," says Johnson. "And yet all of us are affected, nationwide, by what's being taught in the public schools."
Johnson makes a powerful point, say some observers, including several who support the importance of creating a core curriculum in this country.
How much say should parents have?
E.D Hirsch, a professor of education and the humanities at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, is well known for his interest in urging a common core of knowledge for all students. And yet, says Dr. Hirsch, "I have sympathy for local control here."
Fears that accommodating parental concerns will lead to splintered curricula seem exaggerated to him. "Curriculum should be publicly agreed upon," he says. Schools have a real obligation, he says, to create a consensus. "You don't want to say parents don't have a right to get involved."
Tom Novack, superintendent of schools in Saugatuck, Mich., has worked in public education for 30 years and says he's only encountered parental objections to subject matter a handful of times. But when he does, he accommodates them. "We have to operate under the principles of a free democratic society," he says. "Parents are still the ultimate authority as to what is taught to their children."
He laughs as he recalls an occasion a few years ago that tested his beliefs. He was working as a school principal and was worried parents might be upset about a health lesson on AIDS.
Because it was delicate, he decided to teach all the lessons and to announce at the beginning of each class that any child who was uncomfortable was free to go.
Only one student tried to take him up on his offer: his seventh-grade daughter, who stated that she didn't mind learning about AIDS but found it embarrassing to have to hear about it from her father.
Mr. Novack says he took an instant stand for parental rights. "I told her that in her case I knew her father," he recalls, "and I knew for sure he wanted her to sit down and stay."
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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society