President Obama’s speech to school children last week brought this question into the spotlight. Some parents kept their children at home. And a few spineless school administrators made broad sweeping statements that students could be exempted from anything to which the parents objected.
The controversy has "blown over." But the "right" to opt-out is very narrowly limited to religion and health sexuality education. And any administrator who lets parents pull students from any lesson for any other reason undermines teachers and the future of Kansas.
Consider little Calvin working away on a math problem similar to 2 + 2.. This math problem is too hard, decides Calvin in an old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon. So Calvin decides to write that he can’t answer the test problem because it is against his religion. It makes for a funny cartoon line. But it sets up the serious question: what can we actually require of students in the public school classroom?
In Kansas there is one and only one exemption that applies across grades and disciplines. Kansas statute 1111e states that: "No child attending a public school in this state shall be required to participate in any activity which is contrary to the religious teachings of the child if a written statement signed by one of the parents or a person acting as parent of the child is filed with the proper authorities of the school attended requesting that the child not be required to participate in such activities and stating the reason for the request." In practical operation, simply stating that the request is based upon religious principles satisfies the "reason."
So, can Calvin opt-out of the math lesson based on his own unique personal "belief" about difficult math problems. Such a belief, even if genuine, is a "theosophy" and is not a legitimate basis for opt-out. No, Calvin can be compelled to do the homework or test, or get an "F." Courts have been wise in not micromanaging the interpersonal interactions of classrooms. They know that allowing such a loophole would snowball into many students asking for exemptions across many lessons. Teaching would become unmanageable.
What about the sex education opt-out? Kansas was second in the nation to adopt an AIDS/sexuality education mandate effective in September of 1988.. Part of getting it accepted was requiring parent notification and allowing parental opt-out. Across the state, local school boards formed local school policies in compliance with this Kansas sex ed mandate. But with the adoption of new high school graduation requirements in 2005, effective for high school seniors graduating in 2009, the state "sex ed" mandate and opt-out was dropped from the QPA regulations. Now health education standards allow the local school to use either opt-in or opt out for health sexuality education, but technically, there is no state opt-out required any more for biology reproduction lessons. Local schools and administrators in most cases are unaware of this and continue their opt-out policies in place before the 2005 change.
Aside from the general religious opt-out and the specific health sexuality option, all other coursework in Kansas can be required. Certainly the experienced veteran teacher knows how to gauge a student’s sincerity when the student does not want to pursue certain study, but there is no automatic exemption. If we taught only those ideas that met with no objections from any members of the community, there would be very little to teach. For instance, we teach about communism so students will understand it. We do not compel students to adopt particular ideas or to express that they believe in them when they answer tests.
Over 20 years ago, Arizona Governor Evan Mecham appointed Jim Cooper as state education advisor. During confirmation hearings, Cooper stated that if a student "...wants to say the world is flat, the teacher doesn’t have the right to try to prove otherwise. The schools don’t have any business telling people what to believe." Little Calvin could have found refuge in Arizona—until Mecham was impeached.
But neither Arizona nor Kansas can afford to have a population that believes the world is flat, or avoids learning math. With the exceptions of religion and the limited health sexuality opt-out/opt-in, Kansas teachers can and should require students to do coursework, and give them an "F" if they do not.