Groups Press Parent-Control Campaign, Get High-Level Support
Washington--William J. Bennett, in his first news conference as Secretary of Education, last week said he supported Education Department regulations that give parents more control over controversial topics taught in the public schools.
"It's not hard, if you look at the last 15 years of education, to understand why parents are distressed about things that are going on in the schools," the new Secretary said. "I think that parents will give the schools a fair amount of room to maneuver, but parents have been burned. Parents have seen and looked at materials their kids have brought home from school and have gotten upset. I think in many cases they are very justified."
Mr. Bennett said he did not support the efforts of education organizations to overturn the regulations, which were developed by the department last fall to handle complaints filed under the Hatch Amendment of 1978. That law guarantees the right of parents to inspect federally financed instructional materials used with experimental teaching methods.
"If I were a parent with a child in school," he added, "I would take a very close look at what my son was being asked to study, because there are a lot of things in schools that, in my judgment, don't belong there."
Mr. Bennett's remarks came as parents' groups across the country were distributing a "model" letter to school districts demanding compliance with the Hatch Amendment regulations.
The letter, distributed to some 250,000 parents by the Maryland Coalition of Con-cerned Parents on Privacy Rights in Public Schools, Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, and a number of other conservative groups, asks that districts seek parents' written consent before raising for classroom discussion any one of 34 topics, ranging from alcohol and drugs to student diaries or journals.
Meanwhile, the Secretary's comments and the distribution of the letter have prompted a coalition of 22 education associations to intensify its lobbying of the Congress to overturn or clarify the regulations, which became effective in November.
The Law's Provisions
The Hatch Amendment states that students cannot be forced to submit without prior parental consent to federally funded "psychiatric or psychological experimentation, testing, or treatment" that would reveal information concerning seven specific areas, such as political affiliations, mental and psychological problems, and sexual behavior and attitudes. Under the regulations, schools that violate the law could lose their federal funds.
The Education Department regulations, entitled "Student Rights in Research, Experimental Activities, and Testing," define certain portions of the amendment. For example, the phrase "psychiatric or psychological examination or test" is defined as "a method of obtaining information, including a group activity, that is not directly related to academic instruction and that is designed to elicit information about attitudes, habits, traits, opinions, beliefs, or feelings."
And the phrase "psychiatric or psychological treatment" is defined as "an activity involving the planned, systematic use of methods or techniques that are not directly related to academic instruction and that is designed to affect behavioral, emotional, or attitudinal characteristics of an individual or group."
Parents are being asked to mail the form-letter protest to their children's schools, Ms. Schlafly said in an interview last week, "because the schools are not obeying the law. The letter has the purpose of showing parents what their rights are and jogging the schools to obey the law." (See text of letter on this page.)
"They're trying to stonewall and intimidate the parents," Ms. Schlafly said of the schools, "and harrass and retaliate against the children. ... The letter puts the school on notice."
The letter, a copy of which was mailed to 70,000 subscribers of The Phyllis Schlafly Report in the January issue of the newsletter, tells educators that "parents have the primary responsibility for their children's education, ... and parents have the right to assure that their children's beliefs and moral values are not undermined by the schools."
It goes on to request that students not be involved in any of the activities listed unless parents have first been given the opportunity to review all of the materials and provide written approval.
The activities listed in the letter include values clarification, instruction in nuclear war, education in interpersonal relationships, education in human sexuality, death education, and organic evolution. They represent "some of the topics where you most frequently find the psychological techniques," according to Ms. Schlafly.
Malcolm Lawrence, president of the Maryland Coalition, which originated the letter, said his mailing to Maryland parents has had a "multiplier effect." Mr. Lawrence3sent a copy of the letter to Ms. Schlafly and to 120 other organizations in the hope of gaining widespread distribution, and he said he has received numerous requests from around the country to reproduce it. In addition, he noted, the letter is being promoted on 45 Christian-oriented radio stations across the country.
The letter is part of an ongoing campaign by the Eagle Forum and other conservative groups to promote a wide-ranging set of definitions of what the Hatch Amendment and the Education Department's recent regulations cover. A similar letter, distributed by Ms. Schlafly and listing 105 topics instead of 34, was mailed by parents to schools in 23 states in 1983, according to Barbara Parker, director of the "Freedom to Learn Project" of People for the American Way, a civil-liberties advocacy group that opposes the letter campaign.
Although it is too soon to gauge what effect the letters will have, Ms. Parker said People for the American Way has found a number of instances in which school officials are already feeling pressure from parents and outside groups who charge they are in violation of the Hatch Amendment.
'Not in Violation'
In Hillsborough, Mo., for example, six parents who are members of the Eagle Forum--one of whom is on the school board--have charged that the district is violating the Hatch Amendment by offering state-mandated 5th-grade sex-education courses, holding mock elections, and requiring students to keep personal diaries.
"We're not in violation," said Louis W. Chaney, superintendent of the 3,000-student district, who confirmed that he had received letters similar to those distributed by Ms. Schlafly.
"I think the Hatch Amendment is a law [these parents] saw they could use to get done what they wanted done," Mr. Chaney said. "Their motives are to rid the school systems of humanistic teachings. I don't really know what humanism is, and I'm not sure if anyone else does. It's disturbing, of course, to me."
Mr. Chaney added that the Hatch Amendment does not apply to the programs to which the parents object because they are not federally supported. But he added that even if the law did apply to those programs, the district would not be in violation of the amendment.
Although the regulations are worded in such a way as to indicate that they apply only to programs that receive federal money, there is some question in the education community as to whether that money must be direct support, or whether programs or individuals receiving indirect federal support could be affected as well.
In Grove City College v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which mandates equal treatment of men and women in education, can be enforced only in the "program or activity" of an educational institution that receives federal aid. A bill now before the Congress calls for the law to be en-forced on an institutionwide basis if schools and colleges receive any type or amount of assistance.
'Major Federal Intrusion'
The coalition of education groups that is working to clarify the regulations has expressed vigorous opposition to both the regulations and the current efforts to interpret them broadly.
According to Claudia A. Mansfield, government-relations specialist with the American Association of School Administrators and a spokesman for the coalition, the regulations constitute an "improper extension of federal authority into local matters."
In a letter to the Education Department, the coalition wrote: "We are deeply concerned about the potentially adverse effects the regulations could have upon the educational process. ... We believe that these regulations sanction a major federal intrusion into matters primarily of local interest and responsibility. ... We have strong reservations about the definitions of psychological and psychiatric examination, testing, and treatment."
"School administrators agree with Mr. Bennett's comments that parents should play a role in the education of their children," Ms. Mansfield said. "Our argument is with the way the regulations are interpreted. What is the scope of the regulations, what is included, what is not included?"
There is a movement afoot in the Congress, she added, to rescind the regulations.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah and author of the 1976 law, has also expressed some concern over the interpretation of the amendment.
"The Hatch Amendment doesn'thave anything to do with classroom instruction," according to an aide to the Senator, who was scheduled to make a statement on the Senate floor this week to clarify the regulations. They relate only to research or experimental projects that involve psychiatric or psychological experimentation, testing, or treatment, he said.
Response Being Prepared
In an attempt to apprise educators of the federal regulations surrounding the Hatch Amendment and the law itself, People for the American Way is currently preparing informational packets to distribute nationwide.
"All this has happened so fast," said Ms. Parker. "We are monitoring it and we are trying to educate the education community about how the Hatch Amendment is being stood on its head to object to things that really are not [germane]."
"It's being totally misinterpreted," Ms. Parker continued. "Unfortunately, many school people are unprepared for dealing with this."