Why New Hampshire Lets Parents Have Broad Say Over Children's Coursework

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Two texts that proponents cite as examples of what New Hampshire parents have objected to in the past: "The Crack Cocaine Diet," a short story by Laura Lippman that deals with drug use and includes sexually explicit language; and "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," a book about low-wage work by Barbara Ehrenreich, which a family complained was pro-Marxist and anti-Christian.

One New Hampshire high school removed "The Crack Cocaine Diet" and several other short stories from a class curriculum in response to complaints in 2009.

Perhaps the new law will serve as a sort of "pressure release" in such situations – "a mechanism where your child can have an alternative, but that doesn't mean everyone else has to do that as well," says Kunzman of Indiana University. But "a potential downside," he says, "is that it sidesteps the need to have those broader public conversations around what's important for students to ... engage with, even if [the materials] are challenging and controversial."

Mr. Joyce of the school administrators group is concerned by an ideological thread he sees behind the law. "For 150 years, we've had a rich tradition in our country of public education as a general public good that benefits all taxpayers," he says, "yet here [is an] attempted shift of focus to say, 'No, it's really a private right that deserves to be controlled by the parent.' "

When Gov. John Lynch vetoed the bill last July, he raised similar concerns in a written statement: "The intrinsic value of education is exposing students to new ideas and critical thinking. This legislation encourages teachers to go [to] the lowest common denominator in selecting material, in order to avoid 'objections'...."

But with the override of that veto in early January, New Hampshire became a pioneering state by allowing "a parent to excuse a child from any area of the curriculum for any reason," says Jennifer Dounay Zinth, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

A similar law passed last year in Arizona, although it is narrower. It allows parents to review learning materials and activities in advance, and they can request an alternative if they have objections to sexual, violent, profane, or vulgar content that they deem "harmful."

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