Saturday, January 14, 2012

Parents Outweigh Curriculum in New Hampshire

The House and Senate of New Hampshire kicked off the new year by overturning a veto by democratic Governor John Lynch on HB 542. This bill allows parents to object to classroom curricula (and in some cases also the way material is taught) and requires schools to offer an alternative that is satisfactory to parents. Most obviously, the implementation of such a bill is a nightmare for teachers who, though unlikely, could face dozens of objections and alternative requirements for their students at any one time. But perhaps more importantly, this bill favors the views of parents potentially to the detriment of the public good, the dissolution of democratically selected curriculum, and the full development of the child as an autonomous liberal chooser which requires exposure to multiple and conflicting worldviews and life choices.

Cases such as Wisconsin vs Yoder, Pierce vs Society of Sisters, and Mozert vs Hawkins County Board of Education have struggled to balance parents’ rights, children’s autonomous development, freedom of religious practice, and the needs of the state. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights has also weighed in on the issue, suggesting that children should receive a certain type of education that prepares them for peaceful global citizenship, while also allowing that parents should have choice over the type of education that children receive.

While the scales seem to have been tipped toward the parents in NH last week, I am reminded of a counter call from a fellow philosopher of education, Sigal Ben Porath: “"When parents oppose teaching their children a democratic, civic curricula (as in Mozert), they ‘do not have a general right to override otherwise legitimate democratic decisions concerning the schooling of their children.’ It is therefore the school’s commitment to democracy that takes precedence over any demand made by specific parents or groups regarding the civic education of children. This claim, widely accepted by political, educational, and legal commentators in the context of Mozert, should be extended to include situations in which the social majority rejects the educational commitment to substantive democracy. The democratic argument for committing the public education system to the principles of democracy, not to majority rule or parental authority, should be maintained in better and worse times." I can see how parents should have some outlets for expressing objections and putting forward alternatives when the content taught in schools is legitimately wrong or sufficiently unjust (I’m thinking here of some of the worrisome social studies content favored in Texas and the limited version of history endorsed by the state in Arizona and Florida). But overall, I generally favor tipping the scales toward democracy, including curriculum that is democratically constructed and geared toward the public good.

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