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Legal Learning: Permission to teach

Let's continue the "open dialogue" about "The Breakfast Club."

Two Harbors High School Principal Jay Belcastro looked into the showing of that movie to an 11th-grade class and determined that it was shown "for an educational purpose and that the parental permission process was followed correctly," according to an article in this newspaper. "The movie was really applicable to the lessons that he (the teacher) was teaching in this psychology class," Belcastro said.

I was particularly interested in the "parental permission process." According to the article, "Parents were notified via permission slip and the slip explained the specific movie and why it was shown as a learning resource in the class. It also explained that there was an alternative assignment the student could watch if they were not allowed to watch the film."

And I asked myself: Do parents have the power to control what a teacher teaches in a public school classroom? Where does such a power come from? Don't teachers have academic freedom in this country?

Here is what I found out. There is a Minnesota statute, 120B.20, that gives parents that power. It reads as follows: "Each school district shall have a procedure for a parent, guardian or an adult student, 18 years of age or older, to review the content of the instructional materials to be provided to a minor child or to an adult student and, if the parent, guardian or adult student objects to the content, to make reasonable arrangements with school personnel for alternative instruction. Alternative instruction may be provided by the parent, guardian or adult student if the alternative instruction, if any, offered by the school board does not meet the concerns of the parent, guardian or adult student. The school board is not required to pay for the costs of alternative instruction provided by a parent, guardian or adult student. School personnel may not impose an academic or other penalty upon a student merely for arranging alternative instruction under this section. School personnel may evaluate and assess the quality of the student's work."

This law was enacted in 1993 as part of an omnibus bill whose purpose was "to promote local flexibility and innovation in the classroom." The bill said that the Legislature's goal was "moving from a means-based system of education to one that is accountable for outcomes." It was signed into law by Gov. Arne Carlson.

So in Minnesota, if a parent objects to "instructional materials" of a class, the teacher must provide "alternative instruction." If the parent still objects, the parent may provide his or her own "alternative instruction."

This is pretty vague, and I'm unclear about what it means in practice. For example, if a father believes that the world is flat, can he object to his child studying a globe? If a mother believes that evolution is a hoax, can she object to her child studying Darwin? If parents object to educating their child about human reproduction, can they object to the sex education class?

What "alternative instruction" would they offer, and how would it be evaluated and graded?

It seems to me that when I send my child to a public school, I am trusting the teachers and the school administration to provide him or her a quality education. School boards are elected by the voters of each school district, and will reflect the values of their community. That's why we have local control of education rather than a national school board.

An individual parent should not be allowed to warp the education of a child by imposing their own bizarre views of reality on the child. It's time to join the 21st century in Minnesota.

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer.