Parents and social media activists across New York State have been raising questions and expressing concerns about the content of curriculums used in school districts. In fact, some school districts have received Freedom of Information Law requests from parents looking to ensure their children are not subjected to what they consider to be divisive or politically biased forms of instruction. Issues involving curriculum were prominent in some school board elections in May.
In light of these events, school board members and administrators should have a clear understanding of what responsibilities state law and regulations impart on the school board, administrators, teachers and parents regarding the content of a district’s curriculum.
Curriculum must fulfill state learning standards
The Rules of the Board of Regents provide that school districts cannot receive any state aid unless they maintain an approved course of study that conforms with the New York State Education Law, Regulations of the Commissioner of Education and all other legal requirements for curriculum. For this reason, school curriculums must, at a minimum, address all state learning standards, which are in the Commissioner’s Regulations as the “knowledge, skills and understandings that individuals can and do habitually demonstrate over time as a consequence of instruction and experience.” State learning standards are organized into seven general areas: (1) English language arts; (2) math, science and technology; (3) social studies; (4) languages other than English; (5) the arts; (6) health, physical education and family consumer sciences; and (7) career development and occupational skills. The Commissioner’s Regulations recommend that school districts use a state syllabus when available. Syllabi set forth expected learning outcomes, including the goals, objectives, concepts, skills and understanding in a given subject.
New York State Education Law requires school districts to provide instruction on life skills such as civility, citizenship, character education, the dangers of drug, alcohol and tobacco misuse, fire safety, conservation of natural resources, CPR/AED training and internet safety. In addition, Education Law permits school districts to grant religious exemptions from animal dissections (based on a written note from a parent or guardian). The Commissioner’s Regulations require that school districts provide a satisfactory program in health education including instruction concerning HIV/AIDS. The Regulations recognize that students come to the classroom with many different values, cultural and religious beliefs and family constructions, and therefore contain an opt-out provision so long as parents provide assurance that the student will receive such instruction at home. Also, the Commissioner of Education is empowered to grant exemptions from certain health and hygiene topics to all students who are followers of a specific religion based on a petition from a statewide representative of a religious organization.
Role and responsibilities of school boards
While the power of school boards varies depending on the type of district, the board of education in most districts has control over the educational affairs of the district and may exercise a high degree of discretion in how the district fulfills state requirements. When individuals have challenged various decisions by school boards involving curricular matters, the commissioner of education has affirmed board discretion in decisions on district academics as long as the board’s action was not unlawful, capricious or arbitrary. For example, school boards also have discretion to designate which textbooks are to be used. Textbooks are defined in the Education Law as “any book or book substitute, which shall include hard covered or paperback books, workbooks, or manuals” and “any courseware or other content-based instructional materials in an electronic format … which a pupil is required to use as a text or text substitute in a particular class or program.”
While the board is legally responsible for curricular decision-making in the district at large, a number of responsibilities can (and, as a practical matter, should) be delegated to administrators.
Role and responsibility of administrators
The superintendent of schools for each school district has the duty to submit recommendations to the school board on decisions involving key areas, including curriculum. The superintendent then monitors the day-to-day execution of board-approved curriculums with the aid of other administrators, such as principals and curriculum directors.
State law requires a full-time principal to be assigned to each school. “Within the policy guidelines of the board of education of the school district and under the direction of the superintendent, each principal shall provide leadership in the development of the educational program in the school to which he or she is assigned,” according to Commissioner’s Regulations. While the word “curriculum” does not appear in this regulation, a principal should be “directly involved in the design and implementation of curriculum, instruction and assessment practices,” according to an article published on the website of the State Education Department (bit.ly/3B5TFt2).
Many districts have a curriculum director. This staff member ensures that the district/school education objectives are aligned to state frameworks and instructional practices foster student achievement and instructional excellence. Curriculum directors usually work with the heads of various academic departments and report to the superintendent. They may report periodically to the board on all curriculum, instruction and assessment matters, as directed by the superintendent. They work with the board and superintendent to plan and implement a cohesive curriculum, and also coordinate training for teachers. The purpose of curriculum training is to help teachers focus their instruction style on district mandated subject matter.
Role of teachers
As school district employees, teachers must carry out the curriculum approved by the board of education. Typically, teachers create their independent syllabi from the board-approved learning objectives and assigned topics.
Teachers do not have a right to use whatever teaching materials and methodologies they want, as all teaching methods must be consistent with school policy. Although teachers develop their own lesson and unit plans, the topics chosen to teach in a school year curriculum lie within the discretion of the school board.
Curricular matters may come before school-based committees engaged in shared decision-making. However, final decisions regarding what instructional programs will be offered are the responsibility of the school board, according to the commissioner of education (Appeal of Zaleski, 1997).
Each school-based planning team should have a maximum of 15 members, two of which shall serve as co-chairs. There are no laws confining decision-making teams to these numbers or delegations, but many schools have adopted this model.
The teams should include the building principal as a member and have a minimum of two teachers and two parents. The co-chairs should assure that the teachers and parents on the team represent all members of their constituencies.
Role of parents
The U.S. Circuit Court for the Second Circuit, which has jurisdiction over New York State, has ruled that parents do not have a right to tell a school what their children “will and will not be taught” (Leebaert v. Harrington, 2003).
Nor can the voters use a referendum to compel a school district to offer, curtail or end an academic program. “Curricular decisions are not to be made by district voters,” the commissioner of education ruled in Appeal of McLoughlin (2005). “Indeed, because the Legislature has given board of education the authority to prescribe the curriculum in their schools, it is inappropriate to put a proposition before the voters that would override or limit the board’s authority.”
It is also well-settled that parents may not compel a school district to assign an alternate curriculum based on their disapproval of classroom assignments. For instance, the parent of a ninth grader objected to English class assignments related to the books Of Mice and Men and A Separate Peace, and she petitioned the school district to either stop using those books or give her daughter alternate assignments. In Appeal of Carney (1999), the commissioner of education ruled that the district had no obligation to accommodate the parent’s request.
However, parents and community members can influence curricular matters by persuading school board members to adopt their views – or by using the electoral process to elect like-minded people to school board.
If you have questions regarding your board’s role in curriculum, contact your school attorney.
Members of the New York State Association of School Attorneys represent school boards and school districts. This article was written by Michelle Capobianco of Lamb & Barnosky, LLP.