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What Can Tennessee Schools Legally Teach Your Children?

Cole Law Group, PC
Boy sitting in a school desk

With the return of the school year, most parents are no doubt excited to have some peace and quiet around the house during the week. Understandably, many parents pay close attention to what their children are learning in public schools, particularly those with younger students going through key formative years. In recent times, increased attention has been drawn to public school curriculums and precisely what educators are teaching the future generations of this country. As part of this process, many parents have made their thoughts known.

What rights do parents have in directing their children’s education?

In 2000, the United States Supreme Court, in deciding Troxel v. Granville, reaffirmed the longstanding precedent that the “liberty” protected by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution includes the right of parents to “establish a home and bring up their children” and “to control the education of their own.” The Supreme Court cited longstanding decisions such as Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), in reaffirming that the Due Process Clause includes the right to direct the education and upbringing of one’s children. Given this longstanding and extensive line of precedent, the Supreme Court pointed out that it could not be doubted that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children. In other words, when it comes to the education and upbringing of their children, parents are constitutionally entitled to have their say.

What topics are off-limits for public schools to teach?

Greater attention was drawn to public school curriculums during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. With virtual learning, parents were given a glimpse inside the classroom for the first time and had some concerns. Many states responded by enacting new legislation regarding what teachers could and could not discuss in the classroom, and what could or could not be included in school curriculums. Tennessee was one such state and enacted a new law in 2021, which applied to the 2021-2022 school year and all subsequent school years. 

This law sets forth concepts that are prohibited from inclusion in the course of public school instruction and provides for withholding of state funds upon violations. Concepts that are prohibited from being included in public school curriculums are as follows:

  • one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
  • an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;
  • an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;
  • an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;
  • an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
  • an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex;
  • a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;
  • the state of Tennessee or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;
  • promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government;
  • promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people;
  • ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex;
  • the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups;
  • all Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or
  • governments should deny to any person within the government’s jurisdiction the equal protection of the law

If your child is enrolled in a Tennessee public school and you believe their school curriculum is teaching any of the above prohibited concepts, it may be in violation of Tennessee state law, and you should contact an experienced education law attorney immediately.

What subjects are permitted in TN public school curriculums?

There are a number of other subjects that may typically be regarded as controversial, but that schools are nonetheless allowed to include in their curriculums. Most of these subjects have caveats and other conditions associated with them, though. Public schools are allowed to include as part of the curriculum, and teachers are allowed to use supplemental instructional materials that include:

  • the history of an ethnic group, as described in textbooks and instructional materials adopted in accordance with relevant legal requirements
  • the impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history;
  • the impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region; or
  • historical documents relevant to any of the above, such as the Tennessee state constitution, opinions of United States and Tennessee supreme courts, writings and speeches of United States presidents and governors of Tennessee, etc.

It is important to note that most items on the preceding list of concepts are permitted only if they are taught impartially. If these concepts are being taught from a particular ideological standpoint, the school and/or teacher may still be in violation of Tennessee state law.

Other concepts that are expressly permitted in TN public school curriculums include:

  • the Pledge of Allegiance (although students may not be compelled to recite it); 
  • a period of silence or prayer (teachers may permit students to pray during moments of silence but may not prescribe the form or content of any prayer); 
  • religion (provided that it is included for educational purposes only and that the curriculum does not proselytize or establish a religion or religious belief)
  • courses and content designed to educate children in black history and culture and the contribution of black people to the history and development of this country and of the world (including multicultural diversity)
  • materials including information pertaining to the prevention of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) or other sexually transmitted diseases, provided that said materials place primary emphasis on abstinence from premarital intimacy and on the avoidance of drug abuse in controlling the spread of AIDS
  • Excerpts from historical documents such as the national motto; the national anthem; the Pledge of Allegiance; the Constitution of Tennessee; the Declaration of Independence; the writings, speeches, documents and proclamations of the founders or presidents of the United States or the founders or governors of Tennessee; opinions of the United States and Tennessee supreme courts; acts of the United States Congress and acts of the Tennessee general assembly; and the United States Constitution (content-based censorship is strictly prohibited)
  • Celebrate Freedom Week (including honoring Constitution Day) to be held the week of September 17th
  • Gun safety classes or programs for elementary school students (provided such classes or programs are noncompulsory)
  • Sexual violence awareness curriculum (for grades seven and above)
  • Opportunities for physical activity (minimum of 130 minutes per week for elementary school and minimum of 90 minutes per week for middle and high school)
  • School health program(s), provided that said program(s) is/are compliant with applicable guidelines
  • School safety issues (including drugs, alcohol, weapons, bomb threats, emergency evacuations and violent school incidents)
  • Nonsectarian, nonreligious academic study of the Bible (must be taught in an objective and non-devotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students; must not include teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions; must not disparage or encourage a commitment to a particular set of religious beliefs)
  • Recognition and education regarding traditional winter celebrations (including the use of traditional greetings including, but not limited to, “Merry Christmas”, “Happy Hanukkah”, and “Happy holidays”; schools may also display scenes or symbols associated with traditional winter celebrations including menorahs, Christmas trees, nativity scenes, etc. provided that the display includes a scene or symbol of more than one religion or one religion and at least one secular scene or symbol)
  • Domestic violence awareness education programs (for middle and high school students)

Please note that a number of these permitted concepts are permitted only with certain conditions, and if those conditions are not followed, a Tennessee public school could be acting contrary to its legal obligations.

What steps can parents take for dealing with an inappropriate school curriculum?

The preceding lists are non-exhaustive, and parents and educators alike should maintain vigilance in monitoring school curriculums to ensure they remain compliant with relevant state laws. It is important to gather any information you can about your child’s school curriculum to make sure you have a clear idea of what is being taught and why it is appropriate or inappropriate. This includes reviewing curriculum materials such as textbooks, assignments, and any other relevant information. It may be appropriate to pursue an open dialogue with a particular teacher or school official to express concerns, ask for clarification, and listen to their perspective. Throughout this process, be sure to document everything, such as records of communications, meetings, and any documents related to the issue. If communications with the school directly prove unsuccessful and you believe the school’s curriculum is not only inappropriate but also violates Tennessee state law, it may be time to seek legal consultation to understand your rights and options.

While school should be a time of learning and key development for children, unfortunately complaints against public schools are not uncommon. Other common complaints, besides issues with curriculum, that are lodged against schools include negligent supervision, premises liability, sexual abuse or harassment, discrimination, failure to provide a free appropriate public education, and unjustified disciplinary proceedings. If you have reason to believe that your child’s school is teaching something they shouldn’t be, or in any other way failing to carry out its obligations, you should reach out to our office immediately at (615) 490-6020 and speak to one of our experienced education law attorneys.

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