Families & the Community

Outside ESEA’s Glare: Parents, Pesticides, and Darwin

By Erik W. Robelen — September 05, 2001 5 min read
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The American Phytopathological Society opposes a measure in the Senate version of the education bill now before Congress. The Association of Population Centers is against a provision on the House side.

Not exactly household names in the education policy world, those groups’ involvement is symptomatic of the far-ranging legislation being negotiated between the House and the Senate to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While most of the public debate and press reports have emphasized a few prominent issues—testing requirements, spending levels, demands to improve student achievement, program consolidation—the two versions of the bill delve into many other matters that have seen far less debate.

Among the peripheral issues causing heartburn in some circles: parental-consent and school-prayer provisions, regulation of pesticides on school grounds, the teaching of evolution, and access to schools for Boy Scout troops.

Many groups have sought to weigh in this summer as a 39-member House-Senate conference committee tries to resolve differences between the rival versions of the ESEA, which were approved last spring with overwhelming bipartisan support. While Congress was on recess during August, staff members continued to meet and work through the issues. Both chambers of Congress will reconvene this week.

Consent for Surveys

Dozens of organizations, for instance, are pushing to delete a measure co-sponsored by Reps. Todd Tiarht, R-Kan., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would impose new parental-consent requirements on school districts that receive federal aid. The requirements would apply to such things as surveys administered to students and non-emergency medical or mental health examinations.

“This amendment could choke off important school-based research on substance abuse, youth violence, and other critical issues and could disrupt school-based health and mental health services,” the Association of Population Centers and 29 other groups argued in a July 31 letter to Congress.

Some medical organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, also wrote a letter to Congress opposing the amendment, contending that it would jeopardize the delivery of health care to adolescents. They pointed to language stating that a school would be denied federal funding if it “requires or otherwise causes” a student to obtain medical or mental-health examinations without parental consent.

Chuck Knapp, a spokesman for Rep. Tiarht, said that critics have distorted the meaning of the amendment.

“The amendment doesn’t apply to children who voluntarily wish to visit the nurse’s office for medical assistance,” he said.

He noted that the amendment also includes language requiring that parents be allowed to review their children’s school curricula and textbooks. “The purpose of this amendment, which passed with not one member of either party speaking against it, is to allow parents to be involved and have control over their children’s education,” Mr. Knapp said.

Evolution and Scouts

Meanwhile, a Senate amendment, approved 91-8, on the teaching of evolution in schools has created a stir among some science and education groups.

The measure, a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” resolution offered by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., declares that “where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.”

In explaining the amendment during the floor debate in June, Sen. Santorum said it “deals with the subject of intellectual freedom with respect to the teaching of science in the classroom, in primary and secondary education.

“It is a sense of the Senate that does not try to dictate curriculum to anybody,” he said. “Quite the contrary, it says there should be freedom to discuss and air good scientific debate within the classroom.”

But more than 80 groups, ranging from the American Geological Institute and the National Science Teachers Association to the American Phytopathological Society—phytopathology, as doubtless every congressman knows, is the study of plant diseases—do not see it that way.

“As written, the apparently innocuous statements in this resolution mask an anti-evolution agenda that repeatedly has been rejected by the courts,” the groups said in an August letter to Congress. The letter argued that Darwin’s evolutionary theory ranks with Einstein’s theory of relativity as “one of modern science’s most robust, generally accepted, thoroughly tested, and broadly applicable concepts.”

On another front, both the House and Senate bills include language that would withhold federal funds from any school district that “discriminates” against the Boy Scouts of America. Specifically, it says the Boy Scouts or any other group that excludes homosexuals from membership could not be denied access to schools for after-school meetings if other outside groups were allowed to use those facilities.

“Radical militants continue to attack this respectable organization,” Sen. Helms said on the Senate floor to explain his amendment, which passed 51-49.

But many school groups and civil liberties advocates have called the measure an unnecessary, unwarranted intrusion into the decisionmaking of local school boards.

Pesticide Concerns

A measure on school pesticide use sponsored by Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., has also been attached to the Senate bill. Under the legislation, school districts would be required to notify parents before using bug-killing chemicals on school property. Pesticide manufacturers and advocacy groups that call for limiting the use of pesticides have applauded it.

But Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association, said the amendment would impose a “one size fits all” approach that presents problems.

“It’s just not workable,” he said. According to Mr. Felton, one school district in Virginia estimated the compliance costs could be more than $350,000.

Given the shear volume of such legislative flora in the two bills, one education lobbyist said some are bound to survive the conference committee.

“There’s so much sort of craziness in there, I’d be stunned if they got it all out,” said Bruce Hunter, the director of government relations for the American Association of School Administrators.

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