Sunday, August 25, 2019

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Article Index

A. A State's Right to Control Curriculum

Foundational to any discussion about the legal implications of the ethnic studies law is the principle that state and local governments have the right to control public school curriculum. Schools are tasked with instilling both content knowledge and social values to the nation's youth. The Supreme Court has recognized that a state has an undisputed right to establish the curriculum of its public schools. In public schools, curriculum is adopted either by state law or through local communities and school boards. Because state and local authorities are primarily responsible for public education in the United States, courts generally do not intervene in educational issues unless important constitutional rights are clearly implicated. Recognizing the importance of local control over educational decisions and acknowledging that they may lack expertise in educational matters, judges generally defer to local school authorities in matters of curricular decision-making. Thus, most curriculum debates are resolved in the political branches. However, courts have decided a number of key curriculum disputes such as the legality of courses teaching intelligent design, human sexuality, and religious studies. A public school's control over its curriculum is limited only by the constitutional restraints that govern all governmental entities, such as the Establishment Clause.

Although many educational decisions reflect the social, political, and moral principles of state and local authorities, [t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools. Thus, courts will not tolerate laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. The limits of state and local curricular decision-making and the proper legal analysis for challenges to curricular decisions, however, are less clear. In addition to state and local school authorities, many parents, students, and teachers have attempted to influence curricular decisions through a host of legal challenges. However, in spite of these challenges courts have generally upheld state and local curricular decisions.

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Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law

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