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Who Determines What Is Taught?

If public schools don't already have enough to contend with today, a new law in New Hampshire has the potential to make their situation worse. The state Legislature earlier this month overrode Gov. John Lynch's veto to give parents the right to object to any course material in their child's curriculum as long as they provide a reasonable alternative that the district approves, and pay for any associated costs ("New NH law allows parental objection to any course material; educators wary of potential consequences," Nashua Telegraph, Jan. 22).

Although the law applies only to public schools in New Hampshire, it could become a model for other states because the defining characteristic of an open educational marketplace is treating parents as consumers. This trend is already on display in California, where the Parent Trigger Law that was passed in 2010 allows parents at low-performing schools to petition for new programs as well as to demand conversion into charter schools.

The trouble with the consumer movement as embodied in the New Hampshire law is that it makes public schools vulnerable to the whims of fringe groups. Unlike private and religious schools that enroll students whose parents share similar values, opinions and philosophies, public schools must enroll virtually all students who show up at the schoolhouse door. As a result, their parents constitute a heterogenous group. It's clearly impossible to satisfy all of them. In the past, parents for the most part accepted what schools taught. They could, of course, always request that their children be excused from objectionable material. But an entirely different precedent is set if parents are permitted to demand alternatives to fit their individual definition of acceptable.

The ability of fringe groups to get their way, however, is not limited to K-12. The Koch brothers already have done so in Florida. According to Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, "The Koch brothers have paid tens of millions of dollars to get their point of view instilled in classrooms, amongst faculty members and in students. Programs they start tend to be one point of view only" ("Are the Koch brothers teaching you?" OpEd News, Jan. 24). If those with deep pockets can use their vast wealth to buy what is taught, it calls into question the entire principle of academic freedom and independence.

I wonder how long it will be before the Koch brothers and their ilk turn their attention to K-12. Let's not forget that other billionaires are presently involved in transforming public schools to their liking ("Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools," Dissent, Winter 2011). What makes the situation there far more dangerous than in higher education is the lack of maturity of the students who are subjected to the agendas of billionaires.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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