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.”




  • 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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