IN THE NEWS: A SOCIALIST JESUS AND A NEW EDUCATIONAL REALITY FOR NEW HAMPSHIRE

–Thanks to LC

Live Free or Die!  So every New Hampshire license plate proclaims, and a new law in the Granite State looks like it will move New Hampshire residents one step closer to making that decision.

A controversy arose in December, 2010, when two New Hampshire parents pulled their son out of his Bedford High School.  Their complaint was that the boy had been assigned Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed in a personal finance class.  The parents complained that the book called Jesus Christ “a wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.”

I haven’t read the book, but for many people, them’s fightin words.  Predictably, the controversy drew national attention.  Glenn Beck’s website agreed with the New Hampshire parent that the school district made a terrible curricular decision.  The Huffington Post, not surprisingly, ran an article much more favorable to the school district and to Ehrenreich.

There’s not much in the story, in fact, that should raise eyebrows among ILYBYGTH readers.  As we are well aware, parents often complain about the curricular materials assigned in schools.  Conservative pundits encourage careful scrutiny of reading materials they suspect of anti-religious, anti-patriotic, anti-capitalist materials.

The best publicized case of this nature in the past generation was arguably Mozert v. Hawkins County [Tennessee] Board of Education.  In this case from the mid-1980s, conservative Christian parents objected to the content of their county’s reading series by the textbook publishers Holt, Rinehart and Winston.  The parents tried to convince a series of courts that the series promoted a vicious religious system, one they called “secular humanism.”  In addition, the parents claimed the books promoted a grab-bag of pernicious notions, such as witchcraft, extra-sensory perception, pacifism, and non-traditional gender roles.

There is nothing unusual about conservative parents objecting to the curricular materials their children use in schools.  What makes the Bedford, NH case so extraordinary is that it has led to a remarkable new state law.  Thanks to the publicity from the controversy, the New Hampshire state legislature passed House Bill 542, then recently overrode Governor Lynch’s veto.

According to the new law, in effect as of the recent veto override, parents may demand alternative course materials to any material they find “objectionable.”  The parent or guardian must pay for the new alternative materials, but the school district must locate them.  The parents may also remain anonymous and they do not have to reveal their reasons for objecting to the material in question.

This is new.  This is remarkable.  I have spent a good deal of my professional time in the past few years researching the history of conservative educational activism.  Across the course of the twentieth century, conservatives have had remarkable success in keeping America’s schools traditional.  They have challenged “progressive” pedagogy, the teaching of evolution, the restriction of traditional Protestant religion from public schools, and the removal of traditional patriotic themes from public schools.

Throughout all that time, however, even in the 1920s heyday of anti-evolution state legislation, there has not been to my knowledge a state law that allows parents to object to any material they may find offensive for any reason.  Parents have not had the nearly unlimited right expressed in this new New Hampshire law to demand alternative curricular materials without explanation or justification.

When Governor John Lynch vetoed this bill in July, 2011, he noted that the bill would be “disruptive” and that it would be “difficult for school districts to administer.”  More compelling, Governor Lynch decried the bill’s tendency to push “teachers to go to the lowest common denominator in selecting material, in order to avoid ‘objections’ and the disruption it may cause their classrooms.”

What effect will this remarkable new law have in New Hampshire?  My guess is: not much.  The new law will generally fall into the very wide category of laws that are on the books but unknown and unenforced.  That, after all, was the fate of the anti-evolution laws from the 1920s, until the US Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in the late 1960s.  However, like the case of anti-evolution laws, even in states that did not have such laws, a large percentage of parents and teachers will be influenced by anti-evolution public sentiment.  One large survey of evolution education in 1942 found that eight percent of biology teachers thought evolution education was illegal in their states, even when they taught in states that had not passed such a ban.

In short, this law will not change behavior too drastically.  But that is NOT because teachers and school districts will continue to teach controversial material.  Rather, the law itself will not change behavior since so many teachers and school districts are already bowed down by the weight of perceived public opinion.

 

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4 Comments

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