Tennessee has suddenly become the scene of a major judicial clash between religious fundamentalists and the public schools. At issue is whether or not the schools should be forced to provide an alternative curriculum to students when the required course work offends their religious beliefs.
The case began when the Hawkins County schools refused several parents' request that their children be excused from classes that used reading textbooks published by Holt Rinehart & Winston. In late October, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hull ruled in Mozert vs. Hawkins County Public Schools that requiring students to read books that violate "sincerely held religious beliefs" is unconstitutional.
Under Hull's decision, the children must be excused from lessons in which the objectionable textbooks are used and be taught reading at home by their parents. The schools were not, however, required to supply alternative textbooks in line with the parents' views.
This is not an isolated case. In Alabama a group of parents has filed suit arguing that the textbooks violate their children's rights by exposing them to "secular humanism."
At one level these cases are relatively simple. Parents who want more say over their children's education have gone to court when the schools proved recalcitrant. Public schools always reflect the prevailing values and morals of their communities, and when one group believes that wrong values are being taught, the schools can become a battleground.
The values reflected by parents in the Tennessee case are not likely to be widely shared. One parent told the court that she objected to "The Wizard of Oz" (because it has a "good witch"), "King Arthur" and "Cinderella." Stories critical of capitalism were offensive because "capitalism is ordained by God." She told the court that God meant for women to be subservient to men. Even reading about Catholicism "could produce changes in my child's way of thinking--they could become confused." (Or, presumably worse, become Catholic.) In short, there is no way that this parent will ever be satisfied with public schools, regardless of the decision in this case.
But the broader point is correct: Education is about values. This makes many parents, and at least some educators, nervous. But there is no escaping it. For the schools to pretend that they merely fill children's heads with benign and neutral information is simply wrong. Value issues infuse every classroom, and are at the heart of education.
Parents who file lawsuits about what is taught are right to believe that values are being transmitted. But they are wrong if they think that judicial action will lead to some type of "value-neutral" education. There is no such thing.
Hull's decision is narrowly written. It does not require that the school system make this option available to other students or for other subjects. But both supporters and opponents predict that this ruling will pave the way for other court cases about the curriculum based on "sincerely held religious beliefs."
This is where the decision may be a precursor of disaster. If Hull's ruling is upheld on appeal and expanded by other lawsuits, educators may face chaos as they try to accommodate everyone.
The danger is that the schoolhouse will become a giant restaurant where parents, and presumably students, have great freedom to pick what they will study. This would add to a longstanding problem. Indeed, the most important education report in the last 20 years, the Reagan Administration's "A Nation at Risk," said that curricula at many schools resemble a smorgasbord, and noted that there was no agreement about the central purpose of schooling and what should be taught.
In the last five years most states, including Tennessee, and local communities have tightened their educational programs to address these problems. It requires little imagination to see how Hull's decision might reverse the recent trend.
Requiring public schools to accommodate the special needs of pupils has become a common focus of judicial activity in the last 15 years. But telling schools to make special arrangements to meet religious beliefs that the court conceded could be regarded as "inconsistent, illogical, incomprehensible and unacceptable" extends the obligation of public schools much further.
The bottom line is simple: Americans want public schools to do it all. We ask the schools to educate students and provide social services. Some parents want schools to transmit values and expose children to controversial ideas; other parents want them to avoid these things like the plague. When the issues cannot be resolved at the local level, we bring in the heavy artillery --courts, state legislatures and the federal government. Pretty soon the primary business of education--the teaching of literacy --gets lost. Is it any wonder that we find so much to criticize in the public schools?