09/26/2011 04:53 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2011

Don't Say Gay, Do Say Gay: The Politics of Curriculum

In Tennessee, a "Don't say gay" bill would forbid teaching about matters of sexual orientation in elementary and middle schools. In California, a new law requires teaching about gays. So, should we teach about gays, or not?

When the question is put that way, the answer seems clear. Including sexual orientation and related matters where relevant is obviously better education than excluding all such matters.

But let me rephrase the question: Which is the better choice for a legislature ⎯ do say gay or don't ⎯ when it devises the curriculum for public schools? Now we see that the question is loaded: It assumes a legitimate legislative choice. But why should legislatures make curriculum decisions at all?

A central tenet of academic freedom, aimed at protecting students from indoctrination, is that curriculum decisions must be made by teachers and other experts on the basis of academic considerations. Legislatures should provide for a system of high quality education but should leave more specific policies to school boards and curriculum to teachers and other experts.

But where do we draw the line? Consider Tennessee, to start with an easy case. In May the state Senate considered a bill to prohibit the teaching of "human sexuality other than heterosexuality" in public elementary and middle schools. The bill's opponents dubbed it the "Don't say gay" bill.

After much debate, an amendment was adopted that rewrote the bill to require that instruction and materials in public elementary and middle schools "shall be limited exclusively to natural human reproductive science." Whatever that means, the Tennessee Senate passed the amended bill by a vote of 19 to 10 and it remains under consideration in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

This bill serves no legitimate purpose and falls outside the scope of legislative authority. Academic integrity requires that curriculum in all areas of study, including human sexuality and reproduction, be determined on academic grounds by those with appropriate expertise, not by legislators. The Tennessee House should recognize the danger of governmental meddling in curriculum and reject this bill.

Meanwhile in California, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in July a bill that has been described as requiring the teaching of gay history. In other words, California now mandates that teachers do say gay. Is this also improper governmental meddling in curriculum?

Maybe so, but the issues here are more subtle. California already had a law requiring that instruction in history and the social sciences include "the role and contributions" of men, women, and a variety of ethnic groups. The revision simply extended this law to "lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans" and "persons with disabilities." Is that so wrong?

Maybe not, but it merits more scrutiny than it might receive from those who welcome a more inclusive curriculum. Students have a right to a curriculum determined by teachers and other experts, not by legislators.

Once a legislative checklist exists, moreover, unmentioned groups will want to be mentioned. And the longer the list gets, the greater the stigma of exclusion and thus the greater the motivation for additional groups to lobby for inclusion. Legislatures may reasonably require an inclusive curriculum in the public schools of the state but should leave the specifics to teachers, historians, and other experts.

The California situation is thus more complex than that of Tennessee. Inclusion ("do say gay") is generally less objectionable than exclusion ("don't say gay"). Nevertheless, this leaves the underlying problem of legislative overreach.

Legislatures play a legitimate and important role in defining the nature and purpose of public education but they should recognize the responsibility of school boards for specific matters of policy and of teachers and experts for matters of curriculum. A wise legislature recognizes its own limitations.

Of course we should teach about sexual orientation, gender identity, gay lives, and related matters. But we should leave the specifics of what gets taught when, and how best to teach it, to teachers and other experts.

Don't say gay? Do say gay? Legislatures should trust educators to say what needs to be said.