Saturday, October 23, 2010

Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District

Last night I came across a news article about a teacher criticized for teaching about banned books in her high school English class. I was frustrated to the point of tears upon reading it.

This morning, I came across the report of the incident from the Court of Appeals. In 2001, the subject, Evans-Marshall, taught a unit on censorship, assigning Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451 and Herman Hesse's Siddhartha. The next assignment was for the class to break into groups and choose another book to read and discuss together. Two groups chose the children's book Heather Has Two Mommies. Around two dozen parents complained at the next school board meeting, raising the issue to the community and media. (It should be pointed out that one parent asked for an alternative assignment for their child and was given an option of three other books.) The principal and teacher fell into bad terms, he gave her a poor evaluation, and at the end of the year the school board voted unanimously to not renew her contract. Evans-Marshall appealed the non-renewal to the board, testified, and another vote was held with identical results. She then took her case to court under a First Amendment (Freedom of Speech) claim. The court reviewed three similar cases, particularly the 2006 Garcetti v. Ceballos decision that employees in the public sector are not protected by the First Amendment because their actions are to be "pursuant to" their duties. The court declared that the school board is responsible for making decisions, "legitimately giving it a say over what teachers may (or may not) teach in the classroom" (United States Court of Appeals, Evans-Marshall v. Board of Education of the Tipp City Exempted Village School District).

Law states that the school board is ultimately in control of the curriculum in any classroom. This frightens me--I am on the path to licensure because I believe in teaching students important things, things that they may or may not be learning in classrooms today. Things that parents and school boards may or may not think they should learn. Things like censureship.

When I read the news article and became practically inconsolable thinking about the all the things I would not be able to teach my future students for fear of backlash from parents and how thin the thread of having a license may be, my husband attempted to comfort me in the exact same way the last pages of the Court of Appeals case report pdf does: If one teacher can choose the curriculum for her classroom, think of all the other teachers that now want to as well. Specifically, conservative teachers--those on the other end of the spectrum as me. Those that want to teach extremist theories as the fact. If a teacher flaunts her First Amendment rights, what's stopping principals and superintendents from doing the same to support contrary opinions?

So yes, ultimately, the decision should rest with only one group of people, the school board. If one wants to teach a different curriculum than what is being taught, they have every right to apply for a position on the school board.

I feel still feel a little sick thinking about this case and the ones prior that it relates to, but I also feel somewhat relieved. It isn't a matter of not being able to teach what I want, it's a matter of the law, I suppose. As my husband tried to assure me, I can still make a difference in the classroom, and my foremost goal is to spark curiosity. What will, in fact, make more of difference than if I am able to teach a curriculum I feel covers important topics is teaching a lifelong love of learning. They can always learn the important things on their own, after all.

But that's not that I can't merely touch on the topics I feel are important...