Objection not overruled: School board opt-out policy ‘baffling’

Objection not overruled: School board opt-out policy ‘baffling’

A Franklin Regional School Board member is being forced to defend her words after seeming to endorse Holocaust denial during a debate over an expanded opt-out policy.

Board member Jane Tower drew criticism recently when she apparently referenced Holocaust denial as a justification for the policy, which allows a parent to take a child out of any public school lesson to which he objects. Tower maintains her comment was taken out of context.

“It is unfortunate that one example cited during the board’s discussion incited a firestorm within the community,” Tower said in an email. “This example, as extreme and irrational as most of us consider it to be, was brought up during extemporaneous discussions and was meant to identify possible fringe scenarios that the policy might have to address in the future.”

An April 29 article in the Murrysville edition of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review set off the firestorm, which has been aimed at Tower and the entire board for passing a resolution expanding the school district’s “Exemption from Instruction” policy. Although the school district’s original policy required parents to provide a religious reason to opt their children out of any particular lesson, under the new policy, a parent is not required to cite any reason at all.

During the discussion of the proposed policy at the April 27 school board meeting, Tower commented:

“There are people out there who are Holocaust deniers, and if we have a unit on the Holocaust, they might want to pull their child from that lesson. It’s not a religious objection, but they may still object.”

Tower did not intend to justify Holocaust denial through that comment, she said this week, but instead used the example to illustrate possible situations with which the board could be faced under the new, more liberal policy.

The expanded “Exemption from Instruction” policy balances parental rights while maintaining the “integrity of Franklin Regional’s educational program,” according to board member Jeremy Samek, who introduced the expanded provision.

The policy still requires students who are excused from specific instruction to “achieve the academic standards established by the district as necessary for graduation, which could include passing tests containing material they missed,” Samek wrote in an email.  “This ensures the quality of education is maintained and that the material taught is unaffected.”

Still, under the new provision, a Holocaust denier could indeed opt out his child from a lesson on the Holocaust; a member of the KKK could keep his child home to avoid learning about Martin Luther King Jr.; and a creationist could opt out of a lesson on evolution.

“The decision is now in the parents’ hands,” Tower said. “But the students will still be responsible for the material. You can’t pick and choose here. You have to have a policy that is broad enough to respect everyone.”

Only one member of the school board, Roberta Cook, objected to the change. She still opposes it, she said, although she voted in its favor at the April 27 meeting because it was bundled with several other policies that she was in favor of passing.

The expanded policy corrected a problem that did not exist, according to Cook, who has served on the school board for 18 years.

“As long as I can remember, any parent can go in and object to something,” she said, citing a state law that provides a religious exemption to instruction. “I have never known of a parent or a student to be turned down. That’s the practice.”

But the new policy prevents the school district from having any say in the matter at all, Cook explained, calling the policy “unwise.”

“Now, since we changed the policy, we will be required to grant any request, and we won’t be required to evaluate on a case by case basis,” she said. “I think there needs to be some integrity for our curriculum.”

Cook saw a distinction between a request from a parent to have a particularly sensitive child excused from a graphic lesson on the atrocities of the Holocaust and a high school senior who wants to opt out of reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” because he “thinks the Holocaust is a Jewish plot and didn’t happen.”

The effect of the new policy would be to excuse both students, she said.

In introducing the updated policy, Samek was concerned about sex education lessons that he considered to not be age-appropriate.

But in practice, all requests in the past to opt out of sex education have been honored, Cook said.

While the most common reason a parent opts his child out of a lesson is sex education, according to Samek, the rights of all parents to opt their children out of anything need to be respected.

Even if a parent chooses to opt a child out of a lesson for “abhorrent” views, that is his right under the U.S. Constitution, Samek said. “I don’t appreciate the views of the KKK, but the First Amendment protects views we don’t agree with. We would need to respect the right of that parent, no matter how abhorrent his views are.”

Several parents in the school district have expressed dismay at the expanded policy.

“I’m obsessed about this vote for a zillion reasons,” said Michele Clarke, a member of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh who was active on a variety of committees in the school district when her now grown children were still in school.

The school district’s curriculum development committees provide a detailed review of curriculum guidelines that are open to public review and comment every few years, she noted.

“Whatever is taught has already been voted on,” Clarke pointed out. “Yes, parents should have input and discretion, but if the curriculum is voted on and set, you go with that curriculum. There is plenty of public input in this.”

Under the new policy, Clarke said, future scenarios could become absurd.

“If someone doesn’t believe in higher math, a kid can opt out of algebra,” she said. “Or take the situation where someone believes a girl doesn’t need higher math because she’s a girl. I think if parents utilize this to the extent they could, it would create administrative chaos. It’s ill thought out.”

The passage of the expanded policy is “baffling” to Mike Sell, a parent in the district and a professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

“I feel sorry for the teachers, and I’m concerned,” Sell said, adding that he questioned whether the board members were acting in the best interest of the children or instead making decisions based on their ideological beliefs.

“If I let my students choose to opt out,” he said, “I’m not teaching anymore; I’m just catering.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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