Virginia Regulatory Town Hall
Department of Education
State Board of Education
Regulations Governing Local School Boards and School Divisions [8 VAC 20 ‑ 720]
Action Amendments Regarding Use of Controversial or Sensitive Instructional Materials
Comment Period Ended on 1/15/2014
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12/16/13  4:08 pm
Commenter: Ben Sellers, Stafford County Public Schools

A chilling effect on education

I am both a journalist and a teacher by trade. The term "a chilling effect" is often used in reference to restrictions on the First Amendment, such as prior government review or forcing journalists to reveal their sources, that might not technically abridge free speech but would aid in the abridgment of it. The courts have almost always sided with proponents of free speech and ideas where the "chilling effect" is involved.

I can only assume (although this site seems to be put out by the same folks who designed the ObamaCare site), that the new law proposes to require parental consent for any and all controversial material. Judging from the prior comments, this law evidently offers no clear definition for what defines "controversial." Thus, the result will be only to have a chilling effect on education in general and deprive all students of developing essential critical-thinking skills that may only come from having their beliefs and perceptions challenged. 

We all could cite countless examples of stupid, needless, detrimental censorship in schools and other places. Maybe someone thinks teaching Thoreau or Martin Luther King's speeches is offensive because it promotes civil disobedience. Some may think To Kill a Mockingbird is racist because it uses the "n" word, or others because it promotes an agenda they disagree with. What recourse will there be to challenge those objections?

Are we instead to place our faith and good judgment in the Virginia Department of Education? Let's keep in mind that this is the same government bureaucracy that sanctioned segregation in schools until the 1970s. Are they now the arbiters of good taste and morality? Or perhaps it's the parents, many of whom allow their children to hop on Twitter and Snapchat and post with impunity the most unbelievably obscene material out ther. But God----excuse me, secular, pantheistic, nonpartisan entity---forbid that we should allow teachers to promote standards that would impact students' ability to feel good about themselves. 

Or perhaps someone decides that teaching about government/societal censorship itself (a la Brave New World1984 or Fahrenheit 451) is offensive. In those books, the the ruling dictator or oligarchies use sex, drugs and violence as means to suppress any independent thought. It's offensive, and also totally true-to-life, but we don't want to have our own kids think taboo things that might be considered "controversial."

It is understandable that the D.O.E. and political entities may want to pander to constituencies by yet again scapegoating teachers. Despite the fact that teachers are all college-educated, many with multiple degrees, and are in one of the few professional trades that requires a renewed certification every few years, their good judgment isn't deemed good enough for our students. However, there is a reason that we have both free speech and public education in our democracy, and that is so we have a free-flowing exchange of ideas that promote good decision-making. 

If you add more pointless paperwork to the teachers' duties, some will recoil and abandon any sort of teaching that involves critical thinking---the cornerstone of which is dissention of ideas. Others may just leave and go to a state where better salaries and policies exist. And the teachers who care the most will ignore the red tape and continue to do their jobs as usual, leaving the schools and school systems liable for noncompliance. 

The end result will be that Virginia's students lose out, and by extension, so will its future. 


CommentID: 29631