Legal Challenges to Your Curriculum

By Christopher B. Gilbert

Parents and students complaining about the curriculum at their public schools is nothing new. Justice Robert H. Jackson noted more than 60 years ago, in discussing the various religious groups in the U.S., that “if we are to eliminate everything that is objectionable to any of these warring sects or inconsistent with any of their doctrines, we will leave public education in shreds.”

One safety valve for parents unhappy with their school’s curriculum or academic choices has always been private schools. However, the lagging economy is sending many former private school students back to public school classrooms. It is not a stretch to predict that some of those parents will bring their curriculum biases with them, and public schools will face an increase in challenges to their curriculum programs.

Generally speaking, parents can bring two major legal challenges against a school’s curriculum: a claim under the 14th Amendment that the lessons violate the parents’ constitutional right to direct the educational upbringing of their children, and a religious challenge under the First Amendment. Religious challenges are likewise broken down into two varieties: Establishment Clause challenges, which allege that a school has adopted a specific curriculum with the goal of teaching religion; and Free Exercise Clause challenges, in which students or parents claim that something in the curriculum clashes with their religious beliefs.

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