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Sunday, January 22, 2012

New NH law allows parental objection to any course material; educators wary of potential consequences

Education officials in New Hampshire have grave concerns about a new state law giving parents the right to object to any course material in their child’s curriculum – so long as they find a reasonable alternative approved by the district and pay for any associated costs.

The law was passed earlier this month after the state Legislature voted to override Gov. John Lynch’s veto. The law went into effect immediately and requires all school districts to create a policy for parental objections and implement the policy as soon as possible.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, called it a “minute change” in language, but the law has stirred a national conversation about how much authority parents should have in deciding what their children are taught. It also has raised the eyebrows of national education officials.

“You can’t have it perfectly customized to what every parent wants; that’s the nature of public schools,” said national education researcher Matthew Chingos, of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “If the state’s goal was to encourage choice and competition amongst their schools, there are probably a lot better ways to do it than a law like this one.”

Kevin G. Welner, professor and director at the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, said the New Hampshire law goes “far beyond” the opt-out policies of any other state.

“The law strikes me as very poorly written and as extraordinarily broad and vague in its scope – swatting at a gnat with a sledgehammer,” Welner wrote in an e-mail.

There is also a key difference in the New Hampshire law compared with other states, said Barrett Christina, staff attorney for the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

“The difference is that most states reserved objections to religious beliefs or a deeply held moral or philosophical belief; the New Hampshire law doesn’t have any of that quantifying criteria,” Christina said. “Here, any objection will do.”

Hoell said he wanted to allow parents the opportunity to object not just in controversial classes such as sexual education, but in all subjects.

“Parents (previously) had the right to object to materials, but in a very narrow scope,” Hoell said. “The classic example was the personal finance course in Bedford.”

Hoell was referring to Bedford parents Dennis and Aimee Taylor, who objected to the book “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich being used in their son’s personal-finance course at Bedford High School in October 2010. The book was pulled from the course curriculum months later, but the Taylors still removed their two children from Bedford High School as a result of the frustrating process.

Dennis and Aimee Taylor didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

“It escalated enough that the parents pulled their kids out of school,” Hoell said. “If that’s the only option left, there’s a problem in our education system.”

A previous iteration of the bill sought a statutory change in education law, but it failed in the Senate last year. This law only requires school districts to draft policies to meet the requirements, which is a slight improvement, said Mark Joyce, president of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association.

“This is better, but potentially very confusing,” Joyce said. “For the time being, school districts will have to live with the law and work with it.”

‘Bureaucratic headache’

Many in the educational community said the possibility of unlimited parental objections could pose serious problems for school districts.

“It could be quite chaotic for a school,” Joyce said. “There’s going to be a myriad of different views depending on what each local school board decides.”

Welner expects that few parents will take advantage of the new law and pose objections. But the law is still dangerous in its ambiguity, he said, especially if the school district and parents can’t agree on a suitable alternative.

“In a time of very tight budgets, schools would have to create a new bureaucracy to respond to these parent requests if the numbers grow beyond an isolated few,” he said. “And teachers would have to modify their lessons to suit a variety of conflicting parental preferences, resulting in inefficiencies and lost instructional time.”

Hoell and other proponents remain firm: The law will give parents more clout in choosing the curriculum, which Hoell argued is not only necessary, but important.

Most parents won’t want to pay more money and take more time to research an alternative education plan for their child, Hoell said, but some will. He called it a form of “micro-private schooling.”

“Maybe they say, ‘Hey, I can’t afford to send my child to an $8,000-$12,000 program, but I care enough about reading that I want you to put a paraprofessional with my child and I’m willing to pay for it,” Hoell said. “Parents have been extremely excited about this, to have some of the say in the curriculum.”

Hoell said he was surprised at all the media attention the bill has received, especially on the national level. He said it could even put more money in school districts’ pockets.

“I would think the NEA would be all for this,” he said. “I find it ironic that the NEA is turning money away.”

Raising more questions

Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad didn’t see a need for the new law.

“Typically, local policy or legislative action is to address a problem,” he said. “In this case, I’m not sure what the problem may be. There’s no level of problem in our district.”

Over the last 21⁄2 years, Conrad said, he has handled only one parental concern submitted to the district – about a middle school reading choice – which was resolved without difficulty at the school level.

The curriculum already is established and provided by the local board of education, and there have been policies in place for decades on how parental concerns can be raised and addressed.

“Parents have resolved these issues routinely for decades,” Joyce said. “Now comes a whole new obligation. It’s a very complex law to work with because it’s so different.”

Before the law was enacted, parents in Nashua could submit a concern about objectionable material and the district would form a committee of school and community members to evaluate the concern. That group makes a recommendation to Conrad, who makes a decision. Parents can appeal the superintendent’s decision to the Board of Education.

“It’s worked pretty well for us in the past,” Conrad said.

Conrad also questioned the lack of detail surrounding a timeline for resolving parental objections. If the issue isn’t settled at the school level, he said, where does the process go?

“Anytime you have a law that vague, it opens the door for a lot of confusion and difficulties addressing the issues as they arise,” Conrad said.

The measure makes no specifications for the process if parents and school officials can’t agree, but Hoell said New Hampshire school boards are responsible and will work with parents to solve the problem.

Open interpretation

Chingos said the impact of the law will be determined by local school boards and how they craft their policies.

The law could have a positive effect if parents used their objections as an opportunity to create a competitive learning environment, he said.

“If a parent says their kid’s calculus text is lousy and they found an online course that’s better, that could provide better choice and competition for families,” Chingos said.

But many schools offer those kinds of options now, including in Nashua.

“We’re already moving in that direction,” Conrad said. “We’re already seeing that growth. We’re already developing an environment where there are alternatives out there that districts are willing to support and sometimes even embracing.”

But for whatever potential opportunities come with the new law, Conrad doesn’t believe it’s worth the headache of interpreting and implementing it.

“For me, the most troubling aspect is that parents could essentially select their own curriculum,” Conrad said. “When we’re serving a population of almost 12,000 students, we can’t be in that position.”

Cameron Kittle can be reached at 594-6523 or Also, follow Kittle on Twitter (@Telegraph_CamK).