Parents Seek Prompt Action On E.D. Privacy Regulation
Washington--Angry that the Education Department has not taken a strong stand on parents' and students' rights to privacy, a group of parents last week urged the prompt adoption of a proposed regulation designed to strengthen those rights under an existing law.
The proposed regulation, issued under a 1978 amendment to the General Education Provisions Act, known both as the Hatch Amendment and the Protection of Pupil Rights Act, has become a rallying point for parents and others who take strong exception to what they perceive as attempts to teach values in public schools. The parents testified at a public hearing on the regulation, held here last week, that was the last in a series of eight hearings convened around the country last month.
Letters of Complaint
The Education Department decided to develop a regulation after receiving several hundred letters over the past year, all requesting the rule, according to Monika Edwards Harrison, special adviser to Charles L. Heatherly, the deputy under secretary for management.
The letters did not allege violations of the amendment but merely requested the regulation, Ms. Harrison said. She added that the department had received few complaints under the amendment, but noted that there had been no formal mechanism for eliciting them.
Published in the Feb. 22 Federal Register, the proposed regulation has two main components. Both components cover all Education Department programs except those administered by the National Institute of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. Rehabilitative-services programs, the transition program for refugee children, college housing, and a high-school program for migrant students are also excluded.
The first component requires that school officials allow parents to inspect all instructional materials that will be used in connection with any "research or experimentation program or project," defined as ''any program or project in any program [among those covered by the amendment] that is designed to explore or develop new or unproven teaching methods or techniques."
The second prohibits any requirement that students "submit without prior consent to psychiatric examination, testing, or treatment, or psychological examination, testing, or treatment" in which the primary purpose is to reveal information on one or more of seven topics.
The seven topics are:
Mental and psychological problems potentially embarrassing to the student and his or her family;
Sex behavior and attitudes;
Illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating, and demeaning behavior;
Critical appraisals of other individuals with whom the student has close family relationships;
Legally recognized privileged and analogous relationships, such as those of lawyers, physicians, and ministers;
Income, other than that required by law to determine eligibility for participation in a program or for receiving financial assistance under a program.
The regulation would also establish an office within the Education Department to handle complaints filed under the Hatch Amendment. It sets up a structure for keeping records of compliance and filing, notifying schools of, and investigating complaints. Schools would have a period of time to comply with the law after receiving notice of a violation; after that, the department could cut off federal funds for that program only.
In the absence of a regulation to enforce the 6-year-old law, the parents charged last week, schools violated the amendment by using materials that use techniques such as "values clarification" and "role playing." Such techniques, tantamount to "psychological testing," invade the privacy of parents and students and undermine parents' authority by changing children's values, the witnesses charged.
"Some persons look upon the schools not as a means of teaching children knowledge and skills, but as a means of subjecting them to psychiatric treatment, changing their attitudes, probing into private family matters and attitudes that are none of the school's business, and getting pupils to accept religious and moral values different from their own," said Phyllis Schlafly, president of Eagle Forum, a conservative pro-family organization. "That is why we urgently need regulations to enforce [the amendment]," she said.
Those who testified at last week's hearing were unanimous in their support for the regulation, suggesting only those changes that would make it stronger. The focus of their criticism was on federally funded curricula that they alleged use methods that invade the privacy of students and their families.
"Despite all of the attention that the issue has received over the past decade throughout the entire country, there is little evidence of action to safeguard the rights of students and their family units," said Malcolm Lawrence, who testified on behalf of the Maryland Coalition of Concerned Parents on the Privacy Rights in Public Schools. "Our contacts in other states confirm that instructional materials and practices used in classrooms openly beg psychological manipulation and invasion of student privacy."
Non-Academic Tests Attacked
Mr. Lawrence and others cited practices such as non-academic personality tests, questionnaires about beliefs, student diaries and log books, and "contrived incidents for self-revelation."
Some speakers also criticized the teaching of "higher-order thinking skills" and problem solving, which they said were vehicles for the teaching of values.
Noted one education lobbyist who attended the hearing: "We knew that secular humanism was a code word for Communism, but that's the first time I've heard that thinking was a code word for Communism."
At most of the hearings, parents were the only witnesses commenting on the proposed regulation, according to Education Department officials. Last week, although representatives from several education associations attended the hearing, none testified.
A staff member from the National Education Association who attended the hearing said that his organization had become aware of the proposal only several days earlier and planned to file written comments after the hearing. nea officials had not yet decided what position they would take, the staff member said.
The American Federation of Teachers has no plans at present to file comments, but may do so later, according to Scott Widmeyer, an aft spokesman.
"We would just as soon see this issue set aside and let's get on with the real problems facing education," Mr. Widmeyer said, noting that there was nothing in the law to prevent parents from notifying school offi-cials about perceived violations.
The American Education Research Association is also likely to provide written comments on the regulation, according to David Florio, director of government relations for the association.
'Scope of the Law'
The association will probably support the version proposed to "keep the regulation within the scope of the law" and to ward off the possibility of massive paperwork for school officials who could have to document their compliance, Mr. Florio said. The requirements of the regulation, he noted, should be in proportion to the number of complaints likely to be forthcoming.
"They give you the impression that these practices are common, that no time is spent on academics, which is so far from the truth it's ridiculous," Mr. Florio said of the testimony. "The thing that struck me is how little faith these people have in children--clearly, they're just sponges--and how weak their families are."
The witnesses were highly critical of the department's plan to exclude the National Institute of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics from the law's purview.
"I submit to you that without the programs fostered and funded by nie, there would be very little reason to have [this law]," said Cindy Weatherly, a parent and researcher from Georgia, whose remarks echoed those of other witnesses.
Ms. Harrison and other department officials said that the programs were excluded because of the way several laws covering the operation of the Education Department are written. Currently, the Hatch Amendment cannot legally be applied to the statistics-gathering and research arms of the department, and legislation would be required to bring the excluded programs under its provisions, the officials said.
Education Department officials acknowledge that there are ambiguities in the proposed regulation that make it difficult to gauge its precise impact.
"We realize that there are things in here that require clarification," said Ms. Harrison, who served as chairman for five of the eight hearings. "That was the express reason for having the hearings, in addition to a rather lengthy comment period. These are, in the truest sense, proposed regulations, rather than a final version."
Chief among the ambiguous areas that have been noted by commenters are the terms "new or unproven" in the first section and "primary purpose" in the second section.
"If there continue to be major questions about the utility or the effect of a [method or program], you would probably have a claim that it was unproven," Ms. Harrison said. "This is an area we've had a lot of comment on, and we are going to look at what that means."
Similarly, it is not entirely clear what would be considered a "test" under the regulation. Role-playing, for example, is not a written test, but it could be used to evaluate students' understanding of a concept.
"The comments have been that testing is not necessarily a piece of paper, but rather it may be a technique," Ms. Harrison said.
The phrase "primary purpose" has not yet been clearly defined either, Ms. Harrison said. Those testifying at the hearings have sought to have the phrase deleted entirely, on the premise that it matters only that the information is sought, regardless of whether eliciting it was the main purpose of the questioning.
For example, a social-studies lesson about political parties might involve asking children whether they favored one party. Although the primary purpose of the lesson would be to instruct about political parties, the discussion of personal political beliefs might be construed as a violation of the amendment.
However, Mr. Florio of the aera noted that since "primary purpose" is the phrase used in the Hatch Amendment, legislation would be required to eliminate it.
The proposed amendment is open for public comment until May 22. Comments should be sent to Charles L. Heatherly, deputy undersecretary for management, Education Department, Room 3181, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202.