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Out of bounds

National | EDUCATION: Do "opt-out" policies protect public-school parents who want to keep explicit material away from their children?

Issue: "Bush: Holding the line," June 5, 2004

WHEN HER DAUGHTER BROUGHT home the reading assignment from her sophomore Honors English class, Sue Porter took the time to check it out. What she found appalled the Bakersfield, Calif., mom. The book was Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Even a quick scan revealed profane language, graphic descriptions of incest, and the twisted inner musings of a pedophile named Soaphead Church. It was clear to Mrs. Porter that the material was not suitable for her 15-year-old daughter. Her husband's reaction: "Who would want their daughter to read this kind of thing?"

Some students, including the Porters' daughter, told the teacher they felt uncomfortable reading the book. Not only did the teacher not offer an alternative assignment, she "told the students that if they didn't read the book, they would be 'allowing' incest and pedophilia to happen," Mrs. Porter said. No substitute reading selection was offered until after the Porters removed their daughter from the class.

The objections of individual families to The Bluest Eye erupted into a district-level battle over the propriety of such lurid material for any district student. In a series of heated board meetings, teachers defended their professional judgment. Parents, meanwhile, defended their right to shield their children from sexually explicit material. The dispute remains unresolved.

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Curriculum-related parental notification and consent, commonly called "opt-out" policies, exist in thousands of school districts. Yet cases similar to the one unfolding in Bakersfield have in recent years popped up in other areas, including New England, Ohio, and Virginia. That raises a question: Do opt-out policies work?

Maybe not in Bakersfield. But even counting controversies in other public-school districts, the number of curriculum disputes seems small when compared with the total amount of classroom instruction that unfolds without incident across America each year. That could mean opt-out policies in most districts chug along without major hitches. Or it could mean that many parents don't know what schools are teaching, and aren't aware of their right to know and, if necessary, object.

Opt-out laws-and rarer "opt-in" laws that require advance parental consent-vary by state. In the area of sexuality and HIV/AIDS education, only three states require parental consent for students to participate, according to a February 2004 report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia permit parents to remove their children from instruction. In four states-Arizona, Montana, New York, and Pennsylvania-parents' right to opt out is limited to instruction on sexually transmitted diseases. In Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, parents opting out must state that their reasons are moral or religious.

California's Senate Bill 71 last year authorized school districts to provide "comprehensive sexual health education to students from kindergarten through 12th grade." The bill requires that parents and guardians be notified about any HIV/AIDS and sexuality education class. Parents may opt out, but the bill contains a gaping loophole: If the parental notification form is not returned to the school, parental consent is assumed.

In some states, conservative lawmakers hoping to close such loopholes have crafted "opt-in" legislation that would put the onus on schools to let parents know about potentially objectionable material. For example, Vermont House Bill 291, introduced in 2003 and still in committee, includes a detailed list of sexual issues and requires schools to obtain written parental consent for each day that teachers plan to discuss any one of them. And no generalities allowed: Schools would be required to notify parents of the date and time of instruction, the instructor's name, and a detailed description of the lesson.

Bakersfield mom Sue Porter would hail a policy like that. As in most other states, literature is not covered in California's parental notification law. That means "you have to opt your student out of [some objectionable curricula] in order to even be informed" that it will be taught, Mrs. Porter said. In addition, opting out after assignments are made can cause other problems: When students observe explosions of controversy, are segregated, given more work, or face retribution for their parents' moral choices, they may decide to go along to get along. "If they think their parents may object to a book, they may well not tell their parents they're reading it," Mrs. Porter said.

But opt-in policies like the one proposed in Vermont can place a difficult burden on schools, said Finn Laursen, president of Christian Educators Association International. Mr. Laursen worked in Ohio public schools for 32 years, including 11 years as a district superintendent. During his tenure, every district allowed parents to opt out of objectionable curricula, a provision he said is "essential for parents to maintain control over their children's education."

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