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Friday, March 23, 2012

Heated back and forth as Nashua starts crafting parental objection policy

NASHUA – Debate over the rights of parents to dictate curriculum sparked a heated back and forth between Board of Education members this week.

The discussion at Tuesday’s policy committee meeting was intended to lay the groundwork for a policy that would guide the district’s response to a new state law allowing parents to opt their children out of any classroom material they find objectionable.

The law requires parents to provide a suitable alternative that meets state standards, as well as cover any associated costs.

“It’s a terrible law and I don’t support it,” board member Dennis Ryder said. “You have homeschooling. That seems to be the place for it.”

Nashua High School North George Goodwin, the student representative on the board, suggested the district ignore the law entirely and fight any lawsuit that comes.

“It seems to me this policy violates federal law, so if we were to ignore it we would not be held accountable,” Goodwin said. “If we were to get sued for it, would we lose? There’s a whole lot more legal precedent in our favor.”

The law was passed in January, when the state Legislature overturned a veto from Gov. John Lynch.

Board member David Murotake said the law was “heavily supported” across New Hampshire, at least by parents.

“There were certain parents who felt that when they were trying to engage with their school administrators, the administration was not only obstructive but attempted to humiliate them,” Murotake said. “This is really more about parental rights. Parents really need to be listened to and given a fair shake in the education of their child in a public school.”

Nashua resident Doris Hohensee also showed up for the meeting to speak passionately in favor of the measure.

Hohensee, who homeschooled six of her children, said parents must be trusted to know what’s best for their children.

“There are all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas; you want parents to be feeling like these schools are my schools, not just, ‘Put up and shut up,’” she said. “To expand the debate of what ideas are out there for kids to consider is generally a good thing. This hopefully opens the door for better communication.”

Goodwin said it’s the teachers who deserve more trust in public education.

“In my experience, limiting free ideas seems mostly done by the parents,” Goodwin said. “The teachers I’ve had strive for teaching openness and the ability to accommodate for other ideas. This is all done by the school district already.”

Tuesday’s meeting served as merely an airing of support and opposition to the new law. The policy committee voted to table the policy until its next meeting, April 3, when talks will continue.

“Unless this is appealed or overridden in some other way, we’re kind of just getting ourselves warmed up,” said Tom Vaughan, chairman of the policy committee. “It will be worthwhile to let it simmer.”

Vaughan and Assistant Superintendent Brian Cochrane both addressed the policy more than the law, but added that there are pros and cons regarding the legislation.

They addressed the example in Bedford, when parents Dennis and Aimee Taylor objected to a book being used in their son’s personal finance curriculum and eventually pulled their son out of school. Vaughan said the parents brought up a valid concern with that objection.

“We can’t say, ‘That’s a silly objection.’ The determination is entirely up to the parent,” Vaughan said.

Many issues that arise with parental objections to course materials are already handled by Nashua’s current policies, Goodwin said.

However, one key provision not outlined in any of the district’s current policies is the parents’ right to confidentiality, Vaughan said, which is made clear in the new state law.

The policy committee also discussed the need for a hierarchy of escalation, should the conflict not be resolved by the parent and building principal.

Murotake said the sample policy provided by the New Hampshire School Boards’ Association is disingenuous because it says parents could not appeal a decision to the school board, when they should be able to.

Murotake said the hierarchy should start with the teacher and continue up to the principal, superintendent, and, as a last resort, either the full Board of Education or some smaller committee of board members.

That proposal received some support from other board members, although Cochrane said balance is important.

“We need a policy that receives input but does not overburden the board and administration,” Cochrane said. “I can see that this does have some legitimate use. There are some legitimate things parents should feel comfortable addressing with their principals.”

Board member Steven Haas also wondered what students will be learning while their parents wait for a ruling on the objection.

“There’s a timing issue that I don’t know how you get around,” he said.

Despite a few shortcomings, the policy committee appears likely to adopt the sample policy of the School Boards’ Association and make additions and changes from there.

“It’s very usable as a starting point,” Murotake said.

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