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.
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."
But while opt-out policies were fairly simple to manage, Mr. Laursen said districts that tried using opt-in policies found themselves swept up in a paper chase. "There's just an inordinate amount of time spent following up on the paperwork," he said. "If a school has to get permission for everything, it becomes cumbersome just chasing people down. Opting out puts the responsibility on parents, where it should be. It should be parents' responsibility to know what their children are being confronted with."
Mr. Laursen points out that federal law requires every school district to have a written procedure for disposing of objectionable books. Parents, he said, should use it. Sometimes, though, parents who try to-even just for their own kids-get their hands slapped.
That's what happened in the Brunswick, Maine, school district for two years running. During the 2002-03 school year, several families decided that the graphic descriptions of incest and South American prostitution contained in Isabel Allende's House of the Spirits and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings weren't necessary to the well-rounded education of their Honors English students. After a brief controversy, English teachers agreed to "rethink" the reading list for the following year. But when the 2003-04 list appeared, the same books were on it.
When parents again objected to the material, the district suggested that parents who didn't like the Honors English literature selections move their kids down to standard sophomore English, where reading assignments were "less sophisticated," and appropriate for less "mature" students.
Honors parents, whose college-bound kids benefit from having advanced courses on their high-school transcripts, balked at that idea. Meanwhile, the local library took sides and began throwing around the C-word-"censorship"-in its newsletter. That upset other families, who felt conservative parents were trying to ram Victorian values down their throats. Conservative parents were portrayed as "right-wing fundamentalists," when, in fact, all but one of the families attended mainline churches or none at all.
The conclusion about Christian parents, though incorrect in the New England case, isn't a stereotype for nothing, said former Ohio superintendent Laursen. "My worst experiences [with objectionable curricula] occurred with Christian parents. They would read an article, or hear someone say, 'those [public school] evildoers.' Then they would come in with machine guns when they could've come in with kid gloves."
Mr. Laursen's group estimates that there are more than 650,000 Christians teaching in public schools-many of whom would readily defend parents' rights to control their children's education. "There are certainly organizations that exist to insert their liberal agenda into public schools," he said. "But you can't assume everyone is part of that conspiracy."
In Brunswick, controversy at first gave way to a kind of dubious progress. During literature class, kids from six "opt-out" families went to the library where they studied alternative books on their own. If students wanted to discuss their work with the teacher, they were welcome to do so-after school. That did not sit well with parents who felt that their kids were being excluded from the full honors course experience, simply because they had opted out of reading certain books.
Those parents' concerns prompted the district to go a conciliatory step further. It has kept its reading list, but pledged to revise its opt-out policy. The plan is to send home the entire Honors English syllabus at the beginning of each academic year. Parents who choose to opt out would be able to select from a prearranged list of alternative assignments. Opt-out students would no longer be segregated, because explicit material wouldn't be discussed in class.
Concerned parents (who say they encountered such community-wide resistance that they did not want WORLD to use their names in this article) are hopeful that this plan will allow their children to opt out without losing out.