If you think New York schools are having trouble now, just wait until they become the playthings of politicians with pet ideas about what students should be learning. If any of the 44 curriculum-mandate bills now pending wins approval, students here could be required to study:
• Diversity and religious freedom
• Some kind of “multicultural” studies
• Hunting and fishing
• Domestic violence
• Hate crimes
• Climate change
• Breast cancer screenings
• “Medically accurate” sex education starting in the first grade
Those are some of the subjects that state legislators and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are pushing as they seek to impose their priorities over those of the state Board of Regents, which has been charged with that responsibility for decades. It’s not that they are inappropriate subjects. Indeed, all are deserving in one way or another. But two questions intrude:
• How will that information be crammed into an already packed school day? Presuming math and English to be sacrosanct, what should be excised from the existing curriculum to teach students about even the most compelling of these subjects?
• Who should be deciding on curriculum – elected politicians with an ideological ax to grind or experts in education? It’s fair to note that the Regents also bring a world view to their responsibilities, but they at least have a relevant background; let them use it. You don’t hire a plumber to do a brain surgeon’s work – or vice versa.
It is evident why this is coming up now. In the past, when Republicans dominated the State Senate, such an intrusion would have been subject to difficult and possibly impossible negotiations. By default, the experts were empowered.
That changed after the 2018 elections, when Democrats overran the Senate, giving them dominance over state government. Not surprisingly, members want to leave their mark. In a macro sense, that’s both inevitable and acceptable: Elections have consequences.
But how far into the weeds should politicians insert themselves in an area as critical and particular as education? It’s analogous to the disastrous legislative craving to impose mandatory prison sentences at the expense of judicial discretion. Elected officials thought they were smarter than everyone else then, too.
Those officeholders already have an appropriate role in appointing the Regents, who can bring their expertise to bear and also seek their own outside opinions. Legislators and the governor can also make their case to the Regents for particular curricula.
New York is not the only state inserting politics into education and Democrats aren’t the only party. Texas has long imposed conservative viewpoints on students, recently proposing to remove Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton from its standards and to continue downplaying slavery as the central cause of the Civil War. Under pressure, education officials backed off, but that’s scary.
On the other side, four states have passed laws mandating education in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. While there should be no pedagogical objection to teaching students about the realities of the world – assuming the curriculum is accurate and age-appropriate – other questions are important: What is necessary in a six-hour day? What will have to be sacrificed to make room for specialized education? Who should make those decisions?
One advocate for a greater legislative role, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal of Manhattan, says most of the requirements in her seven bills don’t require even one entire class period and can be incorporated into the existing school day.
If so, then she should make that case to the Regents, not try to impose them legislatively. She insists that legislators “know best the needs of the schools,” but the argument is self-refuting. If they did, New York schools would be doing better than they are. Stay out of it.