What rights do parents have over what their kids are taught?
Should Massachusetts teens be subjected to school assemblies in which lovemaking techniques are described in detail by a gay-rights group – even after parents have battled and lost in court for the right to pull their own children out of such sessions?
Parents have rights, say the New Hampshire, Texas and more than 40 other state legislatures. Parents have no such rights, say federal courts.
And thus a new battle seems to be shaping up as the courts increasingly rule against parental involvement in their children's education while state legislatures seem determined to give parents a veto over what their child is taught. New York’s legislature allows parents “to opt their children out of sex education classes,” writes K.J. Dell’Antonia in the New York Times. “Texas allows for the exception of students from any class or activity that ‘conflicts with a parent’s religious or moral beliefs.’ Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s law is the most far-reaching, permitting parents “to have their children opt out of anything from the teaching of evolution to the teaching of phonics.”
It was yoga that had Encinitas, California, parents up in arms.
“Should yoga sessions in public schools be subject to the same restrictions as religious ceremonies?” asks the North County Times newspaper. “A group of 60 Southern California parents thinks so – they want to pull yoga out of their school district’s curriculum.
“The yoga controversy is the latest twist on the contentious issue of anything having to do with religion in schools funded by taxpayer dollars,” notes Scott Bomboy of the National Constitution Center. “In this case, a lawyer for the parents says yoga has ties to Hinduism and that there is no place for it in the Encinitas Union School District.
Wat kids are to be taught is at the center of the controversy.
“There’s a deep concern that the Encinitas Union School District is using taxpayer resources to promote Ashtanga yoga and Hinduism, a religion system of beliefs and practices,” the parents’ attorney, Dean Broyles, told the Times.
At issue was a $533,000 grant from the Jois Foundation, founded by the late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, who according to the Jois website “spent his entire life dedicated to the study, practice, and transmission of Ashtanga Yoga, and was known affectionately by his many students simply as Guruji.” The website goes on to describe Jois as born in India and studied "the Vedas and Hindu rituals at the age of five."
Broyles told ABC News that the Ashtanga yoga being taught Encinitas kids is offensive. “The poses and positions are acknowledged by Ashtanga and Hindi yoga as forms of worship and prayers to Hindu deities. They have a spiritual and religious meaning behind them. It would be like a charismatic Christian organization funding classes in worship and praise.”
Parental involvement is a key to a child’s educational success
In another case in Utah, parents were upset that the local high school’s modernized version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night included cross-dressing and a same-gender kiss.
In Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Mark L. Wolf dismissed a civil rights lawsuit brought by parents David and Tonia Parker and Joseph and Robin Wirthlin, who had objected to their children being taught to accept and endorse same-gender sexuality, reports Bob Unruh. Wolf ruled that the Christian youngsters need the teachings in order to be “engaged and productive citizens.” He ruled that it was unconstitutional to uphold “the rights of religious freedom and parental control over the upbringing of children.”
Doing so, he ruled, “would undermine teaching and learning” in class.
“Wolf’s ruling is every parent’s nightmare,” says the pro-family group Mass Resistance. “Wolf makes the absurd claim that normalizing homosexuality to young children is ‘reasonably related to the goals of
What is more precious than our kids?
“In addition, Wolf makes the odious statement that the Parkers’ only options are (1) send their kids to a private school, (2) home-school their kids, or (3) elect a majority of people to the School Committee who agree with them. Can you imagine a federal judge in the Civil Rights era telling blacks the same thing – that if they can’t be served at a lunch counter they should just start their own restaurant, or elect a city council to pass laws that reflect the U.S. Constitution?” the organization said.
The judge concluded that even allowing Christians to withdraw their children from classes or portions of classes where their religious beliefs were being violated wasn’t a reasonable expectation.
“An exodus from class when issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage are to be discussed could send the message that gays, lesbians, and the children of same-sex parents are inferior and, therefore, have a damaging effect on those students,” he said in his opinion. “Diversity is a hallmark of our nation. It is increasingly evident that our diversity includes differences in sexual orientation.”
In a sharp contrast to his ruling, the legislature in neighboring New Hampshire overrode their governor’s veto to enact a new law allowing parents to object to any part of their child’s school curriculum, reported John Celock, in the Huffington Post. The state House voted 255-112 and Senate 17-5 to enact H.B. 542, which allowing parents to request an alternative school curriculum for any subject to which they register an objection. Gov. John Lynch vetoed the measure, saying the bill would harm education quality and give parents control over lesson plans.
Exactly, said legislators, proclaiming that parents should have the last say.
A majority of states are siding with the parents.
Under the terms of the new law, which was sponsored by state Rep. J.R. Hoell (R-Dunbarton), a parent can object to any curriculum or course material in the classroom. The parent and school district then determine a new curriculum or texts for the child to meet any state educational requirements for the subject matter. The bill also allows for the parent’s name and reason for objection to be sealed – not made public – by the state.
And so the tug-of-war seems to be shaping up. Consistently, federal courts are ruling that parents have no rights, whereas the state legislatures are specifically giving parents those rights.
“While parents may want extensive curriculum opt-out rights, federal case law makes it clear that parents have no constitutional right to excuse their children from any part of public school curricula, even if the parents’ objection is based on religious or moral grounds,” writes Dr. Tommy Kevin Rogers at the University of North Texas. “Nonetheless, parents continue to express increasing concern and sensitivity about public school curricula, particularly sex education.
Rogers cites the 1995 case of In Brown v. Hot, Sexy, & Safer Productions, Inc., “which dealt with alleged sexually offensive remarks made at a high school AIDS assembly.” In that session, actual
Almost in response, noted Dr. Rogers, “many states have recognized the importance of parental rights in education and the sensitivity to curricula such as sex education. As a result, many states provide statutory rights allowing parents to opt-out of all or part of courses such as sex education and family life education.
“Eight states are even more parent-friendly by prohibiting public schools from teaching sex education to children unless the parents opt-in.
“A few states, such as New York and Ohio, provide some distinctive opt-out statutes. For instance, in New York, a parent may only opt-out of instruction that covers the prevention of AIDS. In Ohio, there are statutory rights given to parents for opt-outs from courses not seen in other states such as CPR, and personal safety and assault prevention. The procedural process is uniform with 31 states specifically requiring a written parent note in their opt-out statutes.
“Eighteen states give authority to the local education agency to develop the procedure for curriculum opt-outs.
Who will win, the federal courts or the state legislatures?
“Texas may have the most permissive curriculum opt-out statute in the U.S. Since the adoption of the statute in 1995, there has been no published litigation over opt-outs in Texas. The conclusion can be made that the implementation of the statute has not been a problem for Texas public schools. In fact, having such a permissive law may actually be helpful to school authorities when they are confronted by parents objecting to some curricular element, whether sex education, evolution, HIV/AIDS instruction, animal dissection, the celebration of Halloween, etc.
“In my opinion,” writes Rogers, “as a Texas administrator for the past 13 years, opt-out and opt-in statutes are extremely helpful from a policy standpoint. Parents are a critical part of the educational process, and it is important, within limits, to value their input into curricular decisions in public schools, or in other words, to be parent-friendly.”
“Clearly, the strategic development of opt-out statutes and regulations by state legislatures and state education departments must maintain the integrity of curricular requirements while balancing the sincere beliefs of parents with religious or moral objections.
“The ultimate motivation of public educators is to serve the public good, ensuring the product they offer is of the highest quality and providing that product to as many children as possible within constitutional constraints from individual states.”
“Most educators genuinely work for the best interests of their students and community. Parents, more than anyone else, have a sincere, vested interest in the education of their children. Both public school administrators and parents must work together to maintain a beneficial balance to sustain a democratic society. I conclude that curriculum opt-outs, within reasonable limits, provide benefits for both educators and parents.”
“A recent plan by President Obama to address students nationwide via the Internet energized the debate over what rights parents have once their children enter a public school setting,” noted Rogers. “Airing the speech to school children created great opposition among some parents across the United States.
“The uproar over the speech was widespread, but in many states where school districts were under pressure from parents, plans were developed to let parents opt-out their children from viewing the speech.
“Some public school districts refused to allow students to watch the speech, while others welcomed the opportunity for students to hear the president.
“Independence, Missouri’s school district superintendent Jim Hinson received ‘more calls than we’ve ever had on an issue,’” reported Rogers. “Hinson confirmed that the speech would not be shown in elementary schools, but individual teachers in upper grade levels could decide whether students should hear President Obama’s speech.”
In Florida, “Sarasota County School District administrators gave permission for teachers to show the speech if it fit into the curriculum, but allowed parents to decide whether to opt-out their children.
“Wellesley, Massachusetts superintendent Bella Wong allowed teachers to make decisions on a class-by-class basis.
“In Arizona, multiple options were used by school districts’ officials. For Mesa’s public schools, parents could opt-out for their children only if they contacted the school first, the same policy used for other situations in which parents desired to shield their children from a particular part of school curricula. Other Arizona districts, such as Tempe School District and Prescott Unified School District, demonstrated opposite ends of the dilemma.
“Tempe officials required all students to watch the president’s speech with no opt-out provision while Prescott’s officials did not show the speech to any students (Parker, 2009).
“In Texas, Ector and Midland County Independent School District officials allowed the broadcast to be available to all campuses and teachers, but it was not required viewing. The communications officer in Midland Independent School District stated, ‘It’s an educational opportunity and we will make educational opportunities available to our students. We’re not saying everybody has to stop doing what they’re doing though.’”
Nationwide, 26 states now allow parents to opt out of classes without stating a reason. The District of Columbia and 17 states require parents to cite religious or ethical objections before they can pull their child out of class. Seven states have no statutes covering the issue, but three of those – Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota – said that parental rights are traditionally observed.
Will parental rights be the next battleground? As state legislatures and the federal courts appear to be squaring off, it should be interesting to see who wins.