Dear Legal Mailbag:

A social studies teacher at our middle school recently developed a unit to celebrate Black History Month. The unit highlights the achievements of different Black historic figures, which is intended to increase student awareness of the contributions made by all ethnic groups. Students have been assigned to write an essay describing the influence one such Black individual has had, but they are free to choose whom to write about.

Some of the parents in our town have become upset about this unit and other social justice-related instruction in the district. A variety of concerns have been raised, including the idea of political indoctrination.

Do parents have the right to demand that this unit be changed so that students can write about any historic figure irrespective of race? Can parents demand that this unit not be taught at all? If I recall, I remember reading a SCOTUS case about teaching German during a period in our country’s history when anti-German sentiments were running hot. Would that case apply in this situation?

Who’s In Charge

Dear In Charge:

Curriculum is developed by educational professionals in accordance with policy guidance from the elected members of the board of education, and individual teachers have some leeway to teach within that framework, as is the case here. Legal Mailbag can assure you that the public school curriculum is not subject to referenda or popularity contests.

Legal Mailbag knows his way around German and fondly remembers the case to which you refer. In Meyer v. Nebraska (U.S. 1923), the United States Supreme Court struck down a Nebraska law prohibiting the teaching of the German language to students in grade school. The law was passed, as you note, during a time of anti-German sentiment related to World War I. However, the Court ruled that the law prohibiting the teaching of German violated liberty rights protected by the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Given that the situation you raise does not involve a restrictive law like that, Legal Mailbag notes a different case more directly on point. In Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134 (2d. Cir. 2003), the Second Circuit Court of Appeals dealt with a parent’s objection to his son’s being forced to participate in the health curriculum in middle school. The parent objected to certain parts of the health curriculum, and he asserted that, as the parent, he has the right to determine whether and to what extent his son would participate in the health curriculum. However, both the district court and the appellate court disagreed with the parent’s claim.

Citing the Meyer case among others, the Second Circuit ruled that school officials have the right and responsibility to establish the curriculum, and that parents cannot dictate to school officials in what curriculum their child will participate:

MeyerPierce, and their progeny do not begin to suggest the existence of a fundamental right of every parent to tell a public school what his or her child will and will not be taught. As the Brown and Swanson courts correctly perceived, recognition of such a fundamental right — requiring a public school to establish that a course of instruction objected to by a parent was narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest before the school could employ it with respect to the parent’s child — would make it difficult or impossible for any public school authority to administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children.

If parents could object to and exempt their children from portions of the curriculum, the court worried, school officials could be forced as a practical matter to water down the curriculum in general to placate certain parents, thus depriving other students of a robust educational experience.

Parents do have choices in such matters. They can send their children to a private school with a curriculum that aligns more closely with their views, or they can home-school their children. What parents cannot do is force their views on school officials as to what curriculum is appropriate and may be provided to the students in the public schools. Prost!