B. Parental Rights

Parental challenges to public school curriculum are common, particularly with respect to controversial issues such as sex education and religion, and courts have recognized that parents have a constitutional right to control their children's upbringing. However, courts have refused to recognize the right of parents to direct how public schools teach their children.

A line of Supreme Court cases dating back to the 1920s protects the rights of parents to direct the education of their children. The Court recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause protects the right of parents to supervise the education and upbringing of their children and to decide whether to send their children to a private or public school. The Fourteenth Amendment, however, does not give parents the unfettered right to veto curriculum decisions of public school boards.

In Meyer v. Nebraska, the Court held that a state law that prohibited teaching foreign languages to any child who had not passed the eighth grade violated parents' and teachers' Fourteenth Amendment liberty interests. The Court concluded that foreign language statutes, aimed at protecting American ideals, exceed a state's police power. The factual background of Meyer is in many ways analogous to the Arizona situation. Nebraska adopted the law during a high immigrant influx. The law's purpose was aimed at integrating ethnic minority groups and preventing the emergence of a multi-lingual society. The Court concluded that the law's legislative purpose, to promote assimilation and civic development, did not justify interfering with the liberty interest of the teacher to contract with parents to teach their children.

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court held that a state's police power does not permit the state to require students to accept instruction from public school teachers only. The Court struck down an Oregon law that required parents to send their children to the public school in the district where the children resided. The Court based its decision on the Meyer doctrine that a state may not unreasonably interfere with the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control, absent some reasonable relation to an important state interest.

While Meyer and Pierce protect a parent's right in directing the education of their children, these cases do not give parents the right to participate in curricular decisions outside of the normal political process. The First Circuit, for example, has held that a parent's constitutional right to raise their children does not include the right to restrict what a public school may teach its students. The court noted that even if the school's teachings contradict a parent's religious beliefs, that teaching does not violate a parent's free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Similarly, the Eighth Circuit has held that parents do not have a substantive due process right to control through the federal courts the information that public schools make available to their children and further noted that school boards, and not the courts, must make curricular decisions.

While parents have a right to control the upbringing of their children, including the right to decide whether to send their children to a public school or to a private school, courts have refused to extend the substantive due process analysis of Meyer and Pierce to include a parental right to control curricular decisions. Thus, courts generally give school districts considerable freedom to shape their curriculums even though parents may disagree with those decisions.