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Overriding a veto, New Hampshire's Republican-led legislature this week approved a measure requiring school districts to give parents the opportunity to seek alternatives to any aspect of the school curriculum they find objectionable.
The new law calls on all of the state's districts to establish a policy for such exceptions, but the district must approve of the substitute materials and the parents must pay for them.
In vetoing the law last summer, Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, said the measure was too vague about what might be deemed objectionable and would prove burdensome to school districts. He also said it risked stifling teachers, who might shy away from exposing students to "new ideas and critical thinking" for fear of sparking complaints.
"This legislation encourages teachers to go to the lowest common denominator in selecting material, in order to avoid 'objections' and the disruptions it may cause their classrooms," he explained in his veto statement.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, the bill's lead sponsor, Rep. J.R. Hoell, emphasized that the new law permits parents to address both moral and academic objections to the curriculum. The Republican lawmaker said he could imagine the provision being used by parents who disagree with the "whole language" approach to reading instruction or the Everyday Mathematics program.
"What if a school chooses to use whole language and the parent likes phonics, which is a better long-term way to teach kids to read?" Hoell told the Huffington Post.
Previously, Hoell has cited an incident in a New Hampshire high school as an example of the need for the measure. In that case, which drew national media attention, a student and his family complained about being required to read Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America in a class on financial management.
Writing on a blog last year, Rep. Hoell said "this admittedly Marxist book insulted Christians and promoted illegal drug use as well as being critical of American family life."
Gov. Lynch's veto of Hoell's bill was successfully overridden this week on a largely party-line of vote 255-112 in the New Hampshire House. The Senate approved it 17-5.
Mark Joyce, the executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said school districts already have policies in place to work with parents who find certain materials objectionable, and expressed concern with how the law might be used.
"We didn't think there was a need for this bill," he said. "A worry everybody has is that it will be too broadly utilized" by parents.
In his veto message, Gov. Lynch complained that the measure "in essence gives every individual parent of every student in a classroom a veto over every single lesson plan developed by a teacher."
"Parents could object to a teacher's plan to teach the history of France or the history of the civil or women's rights movements. Under this bill, a parent could find objectionable how a teacher instructs on the basics of algebra. In each of those cases, the school district would have to develop an alternative educational plan for the student."
The final legislation is significantly different from the version Hoell first promoted, which was approved last year by the New Hampshire House.
It said: "No school district shall compel a parent to send his or her child to any school or program to which he or she may be conscientiously opposed nor shall a school district approve or disapprove a parent's education program or curriculum."
That version had sparked widespread criticism, with the Republican chair of the Senate education committee asking: "You would allow any student out of any program or class without any way of demonstrating what they know?"
In fact, the conservative-leaning editorial board for the Union Leader newspaper suggested that language "would effectively end compulsory public education in New Hampshire."
Joyce from the school administrators group said the final version was preferable to the earlier one, but that school districts will have to scramble to implement new policies.
"There are a lot of news releases and rhetoric going out about what the law does and doesn't do, and so my caution to members is to read the law for themselves, see the actual words of it," he said. "It will take a few days, weeks, to understand it, and adapt existing [district] policies."