Statement backs parents’ importance in education

Sunday, March 2, 1997


Please discuss parental rights in public
schools, especially in light of “opt-out” and “opt-in”
programs.
Cindy Pierce Lee, Long Island, N.Y.


In a recent “Statement of Principles,” 21 leading educational
and religious groups declared: “Parents are recognized as
having the primary responsibility for the upbringing of their
children, including education.”


Signers of this statement range from the Christian Coalition
and the National Association of Evangelicals to People for the
American Way and the National Education Association. This suggests
that there is broad agreement in the United States that parents
are the most important stakeholders in public education.


True, parents delegate some responsibility for their children's
education when they send them to public schools. Educators do
have a crucial role to play in the lives of students. But parents
don't abdicate their parental rights or duties by sending children
to school.


To ensure that the rights of parents are protected, school boards
and school officials should make certain that policy and curriculum
decisions include strong parental involvement. Not only does
this approach help protect parents, it also improves the schools.
Studies show that, when parents are involved, schools and students
perform better.


The “opt-out” and “opt-in” programs you mention
are attempts by many schools to protect the religious-liberty
rights of parents and students. When parents request that their
student be excused from classroom discussions or activities for
religious reasons, many schools try to accommodate by allowing
the student to “opt out.” If the request is focused
on a specific discussion, assignment or activity, teachers routinely
excuse the student and usually offer an alternative assignment.


The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in
1993, strengthens the right of parents to have their children
excused from particular lessons. Under the act, according to
the U.S. Department of Education, “if it is proved that particular
lessons substantially burden a student's free exercise of religion
and if the school cannot prove a compelling interest in requiring
attendance, the school would be legally required to excuse the
student.”


Obviously, schools would have a more difficult time accommodating
requests to excuse students from major portions of the curriculum.
For example, parents who want their child to be excused from
the world history class every time religion is mentioned could
not be accommodated because religion comes up frequently (or ought
to) in the study of world history. Public schools do have a compelling
interest in teaching history, reading, math and other core subjects.


In addition to opt-out policies, a growing number of schools
have adopted an opt-in approach. This means requiring parental
notification and permission for inclusion of students in potentially
controversial lessons or activities. If, for example, a high
school teacher decides to show an R-rated movie such as Schindler's
List
as part of the study of the Holocaust, parents would
have to sign a permission slip for their child to see the movie.


Such a policy could also be used for extracurricular student
clubs. Requiring students to obtain parental permission for forming
or joining an extracurricular club helps keep parents informed
about what is happening in the school. Parents are given the
opportunity to keep their children out of activities they find
objectionable.


By upholding the rights of parents, teachers and administrators,
school officials uphold constitutional principles and build trust
in public education. In the words of the “Statement of Principles:”
“Children and schools benefit greatly when parents and educators
work closely together to shape school policies and practices and
to ensure that public education supports the societal values of
their community without undermining family values and convictions.”