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  4:22 pm
Commenter: Lewis Bauer, Charlottesville High School

Please keep the floodgates closed.

Like all teachers, I value an open line of communication with my students' parents. This of course includes being transparent about what texts and materials we will use in class, and about how we will use them. However, to include the suggested language in 8 VAC 20-720-160 would be ill-advised and potentially dangerous to the free practice of education in our state. The issues raised here are not about the relatively minor effort required to send letters home, but rather about the vague and slippery nature of the concept as a whole.

Who will determine what is to be considered sensitive material? Will this be the responsibility of individual teachers or administrators, or will it be handled at the building level or division level? Will VDOE need to issue directives or guidelines regarding which topics or texts warrant a cautionary letter home? What happens when a teacher, administrator, or department is out of compliance with murky sensitivity criteria? Will parents have the right to demand alternate texts or assessments, or to insist that their child be removed from a particular teacher's classroom?

Whether the repercussions are felt at the building, division, or state level, this revision to the VAC smacks of censorship. That is, it leads to a parade of capricious decisions about what avenues are appropriate for teachers to use in accomplishing student learning objectives. Is the entire Civil War a sensitive topic? Macbeth contains a great deal of violence; should we ban it? Are the Berenstain Bears books overly patronizing or moralistic? Is someone insulted by the current teaching of the English alphabet, which prioritizes Latin orthography at the expense of Anglo-Saxon runic characters? The concept of 0 (zero) as we currently use it most likely emerged from Indian mathematics and natural philosophy - does that mean we're preaching Hinduism in the math classroom?

"Those are ridiculous examples," some might say, "no one with common sense gets worked up over runic derivations or the Berenstain Bears." Unfortunately, when it comes to the exercise of free speech via education, deferring to "common sense" is not an option: it will make the classroom a place where EVERYONE with an axe to grind can derail any aspect of the curriculum they find unsuitable.

To avoid creating a situation in which everyone is walking on eggshells at every turn (which makes true learning impossible), it is imperative that the state Code maintain neutrality when it comes to what is and is not sensitive or appropriate. Ultimately, education is the enterprise of teachers and students tackling tough questions together. Teachers, students, and parents need to be trusted to handle these occasionally rocky transactions on their own terms.

CommentID: 29632