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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JEFF JACOBY

When parents' values conflict with public schools

OF THE FIVE candidates running to succeed Mitt Romney as governor of Massachusetts, all but one have chosen to send their children to private schools. Nothing wrong with that -- millions of parents would move their kids out of public schools tomorrow if they thought they could afford something better. For millions more, government schooling isn't an option in the first place: They would no sooner let the state decide what their children should learn than they would let it to decide whom they should marry.

In an interview this month, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey, the only Republican in the race, explained why she and her husband picked a private school for their son and daughter. "I want my kids to be in an environment where they can talk about values," she said -- talk about values, that is, "in a way that you can't always do in a public school setting."

It's hard to see anything objectionable in Healey's words, but they triggered a broadside from Attorney General Thomas Reilly, a Democrat and the only gubernatorial candidate whose children all attended public schools.

Healey is "completely out of touch with the lives of regular people," he snapped. "Somehow the perception is that the kids in public schools are not learning the values that they should be learning. ..... Public schools reinforced the values of our home. ..... It was a wonderful experience." Those quotes appeared in The Boston Globe on April 17. Now consider a story that appeared three days later.

On April 20, in a story headlined "Parents rip school over gay storybook," the Globe reported on the latest controversy in Lexington, where school officials committed to normalizing same-sex marriage have clashed with residents who don't want homosexual themes introduced in class without advance parental notice. Last year, a Lexington father named David Parker complained to officials at the Joseph Estabrook Elementary School about the "diversity" curriculum in his son's kindergarten class, which included pictures of families headed by gay and lesbian couples. Parker was arrested on trespassing charges when he refused to leave the school grounds without a promise that he would be alerted before similar lessons were taught in the future.

The latest incident, also at the Estabrook School, was triggered when a second-grade teacher presented to her class a storybook celebration of homosexual romance and marriage.

There is nothing subtle about "King & King," the book that Heather Kramer read to her students. It tells the story of Prince Bertie, whose mother the queen nags him to get married ("When I was your age, I'd been married twice already," she says), and parades before him a bevy of princesses to choose from. But Bertie, who says he's "never cared much for princesses," rejects them all. Then "Princess Madeleine and her brother, Prince Lee," show up, and Bertie falls in love at first sight -- with the brother. Soon, the princes are married. "The wedding was very special," reads the text. "The queen even shed a tear or two." Bertie and Lee are elevated from princes to "King and King," and the last page shows them exchanging a passionate kiss.

Dismayed by such blatant propagandizing, the parents of one student made an appointment to discuss their concerns with school officials. "This is a highly charged social issue," Robin and Robert Wirthlin told them. "Why are you introducing it in second grade?" Kramer said she had selected the book in order to teach a unit on weddings. When the Wirthlins checked the Lexington Public Library, they found 59 children's titles dealing with weddings, but "King & King" wasn't among them. The library's search engine listed it instead under "Homosexuality -- Juvenile fiction."

Massachusetts law requires schools to notify parents before "human sexuality issues" are taught in class and gives parents the right to exempt a child from that portion of the curriculum. But the Wirthlins' request to be given a heads-up before something as contentious and sensitive as same-sex marriage comes up in their child's class again was rejected out of hand.

"We couldn't run a public school system if every parent who feels some topic is objectionable to them for moral or religious reasons decides their child should be removed," Lexington's superintendent of schools, Paul Ash, told the Globe. "Lexington is committed to teaching children about the world they live in, and in Massachusetts same-sex marriage is legal." Reviewing "King & King" for the website Lesbian Life, Kathy Belge -- who describes herself as a longtime lesbian activist and the director of a queer youth program -- writes that it is "sure to capture a child's imagination" and praises it in particular for its nonjudgmental embrace of homosexuality: "The same-sex attraction is normalized. There's no proselytizing, no big lesson. It just is."

But homosexuality and gay marriage are not like subtraction or geography; they cannot be separated from questions of morality, justice, and decency. No matter how a school chooses to deal with sexual issues, it promotes certain values -- values that some parents will fervently welcome and that others will just as fervently reject. And what is true of human sexuality is true of other issues that touch on deeply felt religious, political, or ideological values.

When it comes to the education of children, there is always an agenda -- and those who don't share that agenda too often find themselves belittled, marginalized, or ignored. Perhaps it was true, as Thomas Reilly says, that the public schools his children attended "reinforced the values of our home." But as the Parkers and Wirthlins in Lexington can testify, other families have a very different experience. When Kerry Healey says she wants her children "to be in an environment where they can talk about values ..... in a way that you can't always do in a public school setting," many public-school parents will know exactly what she means.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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