Bedford flap still felt as Manchester school board crafts an objectionable material policy
MANCHESTER — In January, the Legislature passed a controversial law giving parents the authority to propose alternative instruction for their kids if they object to materials used in class.
Today, the Manchester Board of School Committee is set to vote on its “Exceptions to the Use of Specific Materials” policy, quietly drawn up by school officials and school board members over the past few months.
Under the law, originally proposed as House Bill 542, school districts are required to adopt policies “allowing an exception to specific course material based on a parent’s or legal guardian’s determination that the material is objectionable.”
The bill grew out of a controversy at Bedford High School that drew national attention. A husband and wife there objected to the book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America,” which they said had anti-capitalist and anti-Christian messages.
The law stipulates that parents’ objections must be made in writing, that they bear any expense associated with the proposed alternative material, and that the material be agreed upon by the school district and the parents. It also makes the parents’ names exempt from the right-to-know law.
The law is silent on what happens if there is a disagreement between the parent and school officials over the alternative materials.
Principal has power
In the case of Manchester’s policy, officials clearly sought to give greater authority to school leaders over parents should they be unable to agree on the acceptability of alternative materials.
The policy allows a school principal to deny an objection to course material that does not “go to the content of the course material, but instead seeks to modify the rigor” of a course.
The policy also gives the principal the authority to review not only the proposed alternative material, but the parent’s plan of instruction.
Most significantly, the policy states that should the parent and principal not be able to come up with agreeable alternative material, the district will direct the student to participate in the regular curriculum. If he or she fails to do so, the policy states, they “may receive a failing grade for uncompleted coursework.”
Board members speak
School board member Sarah Ambrogi, who chairs the Curriculum and Instruction Committee, said, “I think in our policy we maintain the principle that a teacher has to be in charge of the classroom.”
She added: “If parents truly have a deep-seated and well-founded objection, they should be able to come forward. But if it becomes a weekly thing, with parent saying ‘I don’t like this or this,’ I can see how that would become burdensome.”
Ambrogi also said she the policy could undergo “some tinkering,” depending on how parents and school leaders respond to it.
Board member John Avard, who was also involved in the review of the policy, said he understood the impetus for the policy. “There have been things with my own children that I have been concerned about,” he said. But, he added, “I don’t think that should exclude the child from the learning process. That’s why we need this policy.”
Manchester’s policy is modeled in part on the one adopted in July by the Bedford School District, where the controversy originated. The Bedford policy, however, does not include the section concerning disagreements between school officials and parents. Rather, it states, “If the building principal and parents/guardians cannot agree on alternative course material, the superintendent and/or designee may be requested to assist in resolving the matter.”
Bedford School Board Chairman Don Graff, maintained that the district has long been responsive to parental concerns over curriculum. “Our practice all along has been to provide an alternative if a parent believes something in the curriculum is objectionable,” he said.
House Bill 542
At the time it was passed, opponents of House Bill 542, including Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who vetoed the bill, said it would give parents veto power over the curriculum, while supporters said it was crafted to provide a balance between school and parental authority.
Districts across the state have been drawing up policies in response to the law, with several of them following a model similar to Bedford’s.
In Windham, the school board revised its original policy, which would have given the superintendent ultimate authority to approve or reject alternative material proposed by parents. After parent complaints, it removed this provision.
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