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Curriculum and Ideology

Schools in different parts of the country may have quite different curriculum to reflect each region's culture, but there is some oversight to prevent highly opinionated content in public schools. This article covers the basics of curriculum and ideology, as well as the application of First Amendment free speech protections.

Curriculum and Ideology: The Basics

Schools may decide upon curricula based upon local community views and values as to educational content and methodology. But matters of curriculum and ideology in particular, are taken quite seriously. School boards are limited in their ability to remove materials from the curriculum, especially when a removal is based exclusively on "ideological content," such as the community's views on politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.

When trying to insure the school board's discretion is being exercised in a constitutionally permissible manner, people need to examine the intent of the board members. Courts are not limited to examining the objective motivation of the board but may consider individual motives and even the mental processes of individual board members. In general, the board must make curriculum decisions that further "legitimate pedagogical concerns."

Curriculum and Free Speech

Once a school board or an administrator make a decision regarding curriculum content, teachers must abide by that decision regardless of whether they agree with the decision. Teachers do have a large degree of academic freedom, however, they cannot teach something which the school board disapproved. For example, if a school board decides that creationism cannot be taught in science class, then a science teacher who tells students that creationism is another legitimate theory which explains the presence of life on earth may be disciplined for deviating from the curriculum.

Ideological considerations also extend to classroom materials. This means that if that science teacher does not talk about creationism in the classroom, but instead provides a copy the book of Genesis to his students as classroom reading material, he is still disobeying the school board's mandate against creationism.

Challenging Ideological Curriculum Decisions

Of course, teachers, parents, and other community members may challenge a curriculum's ideology, but any such challenges must take place outside the classroom.

First, parents and teachers with concerns about a curriculum's ideological content should consider getting more involved with their local board of education or other authority charged with designing the curriculum. This will allow the concerned parents to review and comment on the curriculum before it becomes established policy. Some school districts may have policies specifically for curriculum challenges.

If involvement with the school board is not a possibility, or the school board ignores suggestions from parents, then those parents may want to speak with an educational attorney. Schools are considered governmental agencies under the U.S. Constitution. Curricula that incorporate religious beliefs or severely limit free speech may violate the First Amendment, and the affected parents may be able to bring a civil rights lawsuit.

Even if a First Amendment suit is not possible, most states have strict procedural rules to which school boards must adhere when making decisions. If the school boards deviated from those procedures in a meaningful way, parents may be able to sue school district for the deprivation of their due process or a violation of their state laws.

For more information, see FindLaw's sections on School Funding and Competency Testing.

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