Putting NH's new alternative curricula law in context

Recently, my good buddy Jason Becker shared this arti­cle with me over here. An excerpt:

New Hampshire’s Republican-dominated Leg­is­la­ture over­rode Demo­c­ra­tic Gov. John Lynch’s veto Wednes­day to enact a law let­ting par­ents request an alter­na­tive cur­ricu­lum for any sub­ject they object to, leg­is­la­tion that crit­ics say could limit children’s access to a com­pre­hen­sive and qual­ity education.

H.B. 542 ini­tially passed by the state House and Sen­ate last year, and was promptly vetoed by Lynch in July. In a state­ment explain­ing the deci­sion, the gov­er­nor wrote that the law — which allows par­ents to pull their chil­dren out of “objec­tion­able” courses if they can finance the cost of instill­ing an alter­na­tive cur­ricu­lum allow­ing the child to meet state require­ments for edu­ca­tion in that par­tic­u­lar sub­ject – does not clearly define what mate­r­ial can be con­sid­ered objec­tion­able, poten­tially giv­ing indi­vid­ual par­ents the right to veto any les­son plan devel­oped by a teacher.

The ques­tion of the cost of the bill is impor­tant, but let’s set that aside for now. The thing that inter­ests me most about this is whether there are good moral rea­sons to object to such a policy.

Ide­ally, every stu­dent every­where would receive a well-rounded, content-rich edu­ca­tion facil­i­tated by expert teach­ers. Of course and obvi­ously, there are eight zil­lion polit­i­cal, moral, prac­ti­cal, epis­temic, etc rea­sons why this is not the case. We instead inhabit a very imper­fect world in which many actors with diverse val­ues and beliefs act in gen­er­ally well-intentioned but often inef­fec­tive and con­flict­ing ways to cre­ate and sus­tain edu­ca­tion as we know it.

So I think we can and should take a non-ideal per­spec­tive on mat­ters of pol­icy such as this (for­give me for not attempt­ing to define the non-ideal here. Hope­fully the con­cept is some­what intu­itive). In this, I take my cue from Harry Brig­house and his thought­ful, uncon­ven­tional dis­cus­sions in On Edu­ca­tion, the work which has most col­ored my think­ing, well, on edu­ca­tion in the past year or so.

Instruc­tive here is Brighouse’s posi­tion on reli­gion in schools. Basi­cally, he thinks that peo­ple in the U.S. have kind of fetishized the sep­a­ra­tion of church and state, by insist­ing that state fund­ing not go to religiously-affiliated schools, because this results in a polar­ized set of edu­ca­tional alter­na­tives: thor­oughly sec­u­lar pub­lic schools, and vir­tu­ally unreg­u­lated reli­gious pri­vate schools. Reli­gious mod­er­ates (who far out­num­ber extrem­ists) find them­selves stuck between a rock and a hard place when decid­ing what to do for schools, and with some fre­quency end up choos­ing the arguably worse option of pri­vate, unreg­u­lated reli­gious schools. From a big pic­ture per­spec­tive, it would be bet­ter for children’s auton­omy if some state fund­ing were allowed to flow to reli­gious schools in exchange for their coöper­a­tion on mat­ters of basic edu­ca­tion qual­ity. This would draw many reli­gious mod­er­ates back into the fold of pub­lic edu­ca­tion, to the ben­e­fit of their chil­dren and society.

I want to take a sim­i­lar posi­tion on the new NH law about the parental right to opt their chil­dren out of objec­tion­able lessons. Con­text mat­ters — we must com­pare the new law to the alter­na­tive state of affairs that would actu­ally obtain in the absence of the law, not to some imag­i­nary ideal. While we, the sec­u­lar or those who oth­er­wise dis­agree with would-be opt-outers, may dis­like that some chil­dren will miss out on what we hold to be essen­tial lessons, those chil­dren are ulti­mately likely to ben­e­fit from being kept in pub­lic schools even if they don’t ben­e­fit from each indi­vid­ual les­son on offer there. Pub­lic schools will still gen­er­ally pro­vide a more intel­lec­tu­ally and socially diverse envi­ron­ment for learn­ers than pri­vate schools or home­school­ing (which rel­e­vantly, in NH, appears to be vir­tu­ally unreg­u­lated).

So, to objec­tors to this pol­icy, I would put the fol­low­ing seri­ous and not rhetor­i­cal ques­tion: Would you really pre­fer that stu­dents migrate away from pub­lic schools and into the iso­la­tion of pri­vate and home schools rather than sit out a les­son on sex or evo­lu­tion? Given hard thought, the answer to this on crit­ics’ own terms based on their own val­ues, may well be “no.”

 

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2 Comments

  • I think the ques­tion at the end of your post is excel­lent (not to men­tion the rest). So here’s why I may dis­agree with the law AND agree that these stu­dents ben­e­fit from pub­lic school.

    I(‘m not sure I believe this, but I’ll pose it for discussion.)

    The cost of home­school­ing and/or pri­vate school is con­sid­er­able for the vast major­ity of peo­ple. Most peo­ple who object to some con­tent in the pub­lic schools face a con­sid­er­able bar­rier to exit­ing the sys­tem. There­fore, only in extreme cases of dis­agree­ment or the fairly well off will remove their stu­dents from the pub­lic school sys­tem due to cur­ricu­lum. The cur­rent state of affairs, in this case, essen­tially coerces peo­ple who would oth­er­wise object to this con­tent to remain in pub­lic school. I’m quite cer­tain you’ll find this coer­cion to be objec­tion­able, but I think a pretty strong util­i­tar­ian argu­ment could be made for ensur­ing that stu­dents are taught con­ven­tional sci­ence, to choose one exam­ple. It is my belief that not only are these stu­dents bet­ter off in a pub­lic school, but that the con­tent these stu­dents and fam­i­lies would likely object to is of par­tic­u­lar ben­e­fit to both the indi­vid­u­als and soci­ety. Whether this means healthy and safe sex prac­tices or sci­en­tific method, I think there is good rea­son to coerce these stu­dents into expe­ri­enc­ing this content.

    Given this real­ity, I would rather not insti­tute a law like NH on the grounds that you pro­posed. First, the num­ber of stu­dents who will remain in the sys­tem rather than exit into home­school­ing or pri­vate school is likely unsub­stan­tial because of the high costs asso­ci­ated with those deci­sions. Sec­ond, I am sub­stan­tially low­er­ing the cost of object­ing to spe­cific con­tent and there­fore mak­ing it more likely that a broader group of stu­dents (extend­ing beyond the cur­rent opt-out audi­ence) will not be exposed to cer­tain con­tent. Believ­ing that this spe­cific con­tent is quite valu­able, I con­clude the NH law is likely a net-negative.

  • pamela j. stubbart wrote:

    Yep, you’re def­i­nitely right that the costs of exit­ing the pub­lic school sys­tem are sig­nif­i­cant, and that alot more peo­ple will prob­a­bly be coerced (rightly or wrongly) into stay­ing in pub­lic school sys­tems rather than leav­ing to go to pri­vate schools (espe­cially since low­ish cost Catholic pri­vate schools are clos­ing left and right these days). The law may be a net neg­a­tive, from the per­spec­tive of get­ting more kids into schools that teach the things that are pub­licly defen­si­ble (I’m going to assume this includes evo­lu­tion and such, but it may not, let’s ignore that for now).

    I guess all I’d have to say in par­tial defense of the new law is that there’s some­thing more at stake than just which school which kids attend. Poli­cies like the new law may cause reli­gious and other curriculum-objecting par­ents to take new, more pos­i­tive atti­tudes towards the pub­lic schools their kids attend. The school can then be a part­ner in edu­ca­tion their chil­dren (how­ever objec­tively sub­op­ti­mally) instead of an agent of the state bent on “indoc­tri­nat­ing” their chil­dren against their will. Surely this aspect of the equa­tion would be really dif­fi­cult to inves­ti­gate other than ethno­graph­i­cally. But it seems to me that par­ents mod­el­ing respect for the pub­lic schools to their chil­dren may at least some­times be worth their kids miss­ing even a key lesson.

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