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In late May, a group of over 50 parents and supporters gathered at the Lower Township Board of Education meeting to express their concerns over the still present mask mandate. Another issue that animated the unusual level of involvement in a school district meeting was the impending changes to the New Jersey K-12 curriculum, changes emanating from Trenton not from locally elected school board 

The mask mandate issue reached a resolution of sorts with Governor Phil Murphy’s approach of using the increasingly warm weather as a politically safe way of turning mask policy back over to local school boards. The curriculum issue still looms and it is going to take on added importance as we move into the next school year. 

So what did Trenton do? A new bill passed without bipartisan support setting new curriculum standards for every public school district in the state. Beginning with the 2021-2022 school year, each school district must incorporate instruction on “diversity and inclusion” in the curriculum of students in grades kindergarten through 12. This new emphasis will become part of each district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards.  

What does that really mean?  

The statute states that the curriculum shall include instruction that highlights and promotes diversity. This includes “economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in conjunction with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance.” The schools are to become the guides in specific social value formulation, values that once were the purview of parents, the home and the community. The state will provide school districts with “sample learning activities and resources designed to promote diversity and inclusion.” 

Does the state have the power to mandate such issues? The answer is apparently they do. This new curricular emphasis was enacted through formal legislation.  

Where does this road take us?  

In a unanimous Supreme Court decision this past week, the court upheld the right of a Catholic social services agency in neighboring Philadelphia to refuse to work with same sex couples applying to take in foster children. How does this square with what the new curriculum will offer as a value system regarding sexual orientation? It exposes very real and ongoing debate on values. 

In short, with this state driven approach to school curriculum we are essentially leaving our students, many at very young age, to navigate the choppy waters of a debate that is still raging in the society as a whole. They may find themselves caught in the conflict over values taught at home, at places of worship and at school.  

There is no argument being made here for exclusion, a lack of tolerance or for bigotry.  

At issue is where are fundamental values best taught and who determines their content? For most of our existence as a nation locally elected school boards had wide latitude in curriculum content. As the state role grew it quickly went beyond issues like compulsory attendance and freedom of access. It began to embrace testing requirements and education standards that were no longer seen as local issues. The federal government began to layer in mandates of its own with attempts at standardized curriculums built around guidance like the Common Core.  

Where are the appropriate boundaries for the state and federal role in defining what is taught? They remain fluid with ever greater intrusion into what were once local prerogatives.  

This year New Jersey introduced a new LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum. It requires that middle and high schools teach the political, economic and social contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals. Again are schools the proper place to take on issues that have yet to play themselves out in the larger society?  

What role is left to parents to explain different sexual identities and preferences in ways that may align with family religious values?  

There are clearly serious issues that very much need to find a level of resolution in our society. But are school regulations, the Governor’s Office and the state legislature free to mandate that resolution from above, placing the burden on students to resolve conflict in what they are taught before many of them are old enough for serious independent thinking 

Are we giving schools the task to provide the moral instruction that once belonged to parents?  

We could be diverting attention yet again from the teaching of basic skills. The standardized assessments that are so favored by federal and state education officials show that our schools still have a long way to go on what should be the most basic goals of k-12 education. Where should the emphasis be?  

Yes, provide a safe and effective school environment for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, orientation and religious belief. But let’s also let parents be parents.  

***** 

Bible quote: Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. 1 Peter 2:17

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