In Senate, Hatch Asks for 'Common Sense' on Parents' Rights
Washington--In the face of widely divergent interpretations of federal regulations that give parents more control over controversial topics taught in public schools, the sponsor of the law last week took to the floor of the Senate to clarify its intent and to plead for a "common-sense" approach to applying the rules.
"I am amazed at the overreaction of educational lobby groups to the [Education] Department's regulations," said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, referring to recent statements by groups that oppose the rules.
But he also directed remarks at proponents, saying, "Some parent groups have interpreted both the statute and the regulations so broadly that they would have them apply to all curriculum materials, library books, teacher guides, etc., paid for with state or local money."
"It was the purpose of my amendment to guarantee the right of parents to have their children excused from federally funded activities under carefully specified circumstances," the Senator said. "The 'activities' we are talking about are nonscholastic in nature."
Senator Hatch emphasized that the proposed amendment was not intended to apply to any curriculum or other school activi-ties not directly supported by federal funds.
Parents' groups and conservative organizations--including Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum--in recent weeks have distributed some 250,000 copies of a "model" letter to school districts across the nation demanding compliance with the Hatch Amendment regulations. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1985.)
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 political affiliations, sexual behavior and attitudes, and five other specific areas. The Education Department regulations, which went into effect in November, further define certain portions of the amendment.
In response to the letter-writing campaign, a coalition of 26 education groups, concerned that the regulations constitute "an improper extension of federal authority into local matters," is lobbying the Congress to seek clarification of the regulations.
Acknowledging that there are "some ambiguities and some vague definitions" in the federal regulations, Senator Hatch asked that educators and parents give the regulations time to work.
In the meantime, he said, "I would hope that both the educational groups and some parent groups would not torture the intent of the Hatch Amendment or the provisions of the Department of Education regulations. In my judgment, in dealing with their constituencies, representatives of both the educational groups and some parent groups have played the game of 'worst possible scenario.' It is time to let the rule of common sense prevail."
In his statement, Senator Hatch clarified which programs and activities within schools are covered by the amendment. Although the federal regulations indicate that the amendment applies only to programs that receive federal funds, there has been some confusion among educators and parents over whether that money must be direct support, or whether programs or individuals receiving indirect support could be affected as well.
The Hatch Amendment does not apply to courses receiving no federal funds, Senator Hatch said. It was not the intent of the amendment, he said, to apply to sex-education courses paid for by other than federal funds, or--in a district that receives some federal funds on a formula basis, such as impact aid or Chapter 1--to teacher-made tests that ask students to make a value judgment.
"The fact that students for whom a school district has received federal funds on a formula basis are attending a class does not in and of itself bring to bear the Hatch Amendment," he said. "Were we to agree that it does, we would also have to agree that there is nothing amiss with any of the proposed legislation to overturn the Grove City Supreme Court decision before us."
The Hatch Amendment does apply, he pointed out, in the presence of a direct relationship between federal funds and the establishment of "experimental, demonstration, or testing programs, the primary purpose of which is to elicit the type of information proscribed by the Hatch Amendment."
Senator Hatch also pointed out that involvement by federal officials in determining the appropriateness of districts' curricula "would be the first step in the direction of a federally sanctioned national curriculum, something that is anathema to both parents and educators, and at the present time, patently illegal."
The secretary of education, he noted, "cannot exercise control over curriculum in a program that is federally funded, let alone one that is not."
Helps Clarify Issues
Claudia A. Mansfield, government-relations specialist with the American Association of School Administrators and a spokesman for the coalition of education groups, said Senator Hatch's statement "helps to clarify some of the issues the members of the coalition are concerned about."
The coalition, which is scheduled to meet this week, asked the Educa-tion Department last week to outline the procedures it plans to follow upon receipt of a complaint that the regulations are not being followed.
"Although the department has only received three complaints," Ms. Mansfield said, "we're finding that more and more school systems are getting requests for information; we [at aasa] are getting more. We need to be able to tell school administrators and teachers how the department will proceed."
Malcolm Lawrence, president of the Maryland Coalition of Concerned Parents on Privacy Rights in Public Schools, who distributed copies of the "model" letter to parents, termed "misleading" Senator Hatch's remarks about parent groups.
"We know that the Hatch regulations are for federally funded programs administered by the Education Department," Mr. Lawrence said. "We think parents' groups have the basic right to do what we [outline] in the letter with or without the Hatch Amendment. These are rights we've had all along."
"The fact that something a parent objects to is not federally funded doesn't make a difference to us," he continued. "We were just using the Hatch regulations as the latest example of a law that comes down on the side of parents."
Mr. Lawrence also disagreed with the Senator's contention that the law is not applicable to classroom materials. "It definitely does apply to classroom materials as we read the law," he said. "If he thinks it applies just to research, then he ought to rethink the purpose of his law."
Ms. Schlafly was unavailable for comment last week.