Overriding the governor’s veto, New Hampshire’s Republican-led legislature has enacted a new law that requires school districts to give parents the opportunity to seek alternatives to any course materials they find objectionable.
The measure, approved this month, calls on all districts in the state to establish a policy for such exceptions, but sets two key conditions. First, the district must approve of the substitute materials for the particular child, and second, the parents must pay for them.
Although at least a few states, including New Hampshire, already have laws giving parents some explicit recourse in particular subjects, such as sex education, this policy appears to be more expansive in its potential reach.
It was that factor that apparently sparked a veto last summer from Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat. He said the legislation was too vague about what could be deemed objectionable, would prove burdensome to districts, and risked stifling teachers, who might shy away from exposing students to “new ideas and critical thinking” for fear of sparking complaints.
“This legislation in essence gives every individual parent of every student in a classroom a veto over every single lesson plan developed by a teacher,” Gov. Lynch said in his veto message in July.
“It encourages teachers to go to the lowest common denominator in selecting material, in order to avoid ‘objections’ and the disruptions it may cause their classrooms.”
But Rep. Jack B. Flanagan, a Republican and a co-author of the bill, said the governor and other critics have exaggerated its impact.
“It’s been blown out of proportion,” he said in an interview. “If you felt a book was inappropriate for your child, wouldn’t you like to see if there was some opportunity [to find an alternative]?”
He said the measure will provide better balance to what he called the three-legged stool of education: students, parents, and schools.
“You get some districts, ... they love parental involvement as long as it agrees with them,” he said. “This is a bill that makes the three-legged stool a little stabler.”
The action to override Gov. Lynch’s veto was approved on largely party-line votes of 255-122 in the House of Representatives and 17-5 in the Senate.
Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said the law appears to be unique in its scope.
“We are not aware of other state curriculum-excusal policies that allow a parent to excuse a child from any aspect of the curriculum the parent finds objectionable,” she wrote in an email. “Typically, state-level ... policies provide for a parent to excuse a child from specified components of the curriculum, such as animal dissection, sex education, or physical education.”
The new law was changed substantially from the version that initially passed the House last year. That bill, which was offered by Rep. J.R. Hoell, also a Republican, was seen as much more far-reaching and stalled in the Senate.
It said: “No school district shall compel a parent to send his or her child to any school or program to which he or she may be conscientiously opposed nor shall a school district approve or disapprove a parent’s education program or curriculum.”
That language sparked widespread criticism in the state. The conservative-leaning editorial board of the Union Leader newspaper suggested it “would effectively end compulsory public education in New Hampshire.”
The final language says districts must adopt a policy “allowing an exception to specific course material” found objectionable by a parent or guardian. The alternative material must be agreed on by the school district and the parent, and must be “sufficient to enable the child to meet state requirements for education in the particular subject area.”
Mark V. Joyce, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said the final law is preferable to the original measure, but he said he still has misgivings.
“We didn’t think there was a need for this bill,” he said, noting that districts typically already have policies to handle parental objections. “A worry everybody has is that it will be too broadly utilized” by parents, Mr. Joyce said.
“It’s a very broad, blanket statement, and therein lies some of our concern,” said R. Dean Michener, the associate director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, which helped in crafting changes to the original proposal, even though the organization did not ultimately back it.
“The sponsors didn’t take all of our suggestions, but they did listen to several of our concerns,” he said.
Mr. Michener notes that state law already requires districts to have a policy allowing parents to opt their children out of class units on health or sex education they find objectionable.
Gov. Lynch’s veto statement was sharply critical of the revised version and spelled out some of the potential problems he believes it could create.
“Parents could object to a teacher’s plan to teach the history of France or the history of the civil or women’s rights movements,” he said. “Under this bill, a parent could find objectionable how a teacher instructs on the basics of algebra. In each of those cases, the school district would have to develop an alternative educational plan for the student.”
But Rep. Flanagan, a former local school board member, said the idea is not to allow a student to opt out of the curriculum in a particular class. Instead, he said it’s simply to find an alternative to material that a parent deems morally objectionable, or even material the parent believes does not provide sufficient academic challenge.
Asked about the complaints he’s heard, Mr. Flanagan cited a recent case of parent objections to sexually explicit material and profanity in The Glass Castle, an award-winning memoir by Jeanette Walls included on a high school teacher’s reading list.
In any case, he predicted that few parents would actually make use of the new law.
“Based on the number of parents that object to the material, I would guess it’s one-tenth of one percent,” he said.
‘Faith and Belief Systems’
Kathleen Porter-Magee, a senior director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank, said the New Hampshire legislation touches on a tough issue. She said she would not want to see it used by parents to reject outright an approach to teaching math, for instance, or to bring the teaching of creationism into schools as an alternative to evolution.
At the same time, she said, she sympathizes with parents.
“I don’t think it’s crazy to say parents should have a say in what their kids are learning, especially when it affects issues about their faith and belief system,” Ms. Porter-Magee said. “The problem is that the bill is written so broadly.”
Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as N.H. Parents Gain Leverage to Challenge Curricula