WASHINGTON – From teaching creationism to offering condoms, it's no secret that ideological passions run high when it comes to what goes on in the nation's classrooms.
And those debates only seem to be heating up.
For example, the discussion over whether public schools should teach creationism, the theory that life was created by God, as an alternative or in addition to the theory of evolution has spread across the nation a year after Kansas state officials restored creationism to curriculum standards.
"We are getting a bit strained with the number of phone calls," said Beth Gianforcaro, a spokeswoman for the Ohio State Board of Education, which has taken on the issue. "This particular issue has gotten the most attention," she said, noting thousands of people have turned out for public meetings on the subject.
The school district in Joes, Colo., last week voted against adding creationism to the curriculum, after initially voting it in unanimously. "This is the end of it," Superintendent Todd Bissell proclaimed after the latest vote.
On other ideological fronts:
— A Sweetwater, Wyo.-county school district voted 4-2 last week to allow high school seniors to opt out of new sex education courses that address homosexuality and contraception after parents there protested;
— Egged on by parents, three school board members in Panama City, Fla., called homosexuality a "sin," and said they oppose any curriculum changes "promoting or condoning" such a lifestyle;
— Dueling parent groups in Newton, Mass., have been arguing for more than five years against the "Respect for Human Differences" curriculum, which some parents there believe promote the gay lifestyle;
— Protestors are currently pressing Massachusetts education officials to place more emphasis on Africa and Latin America in the updated history standards for the state school system.
"The biggest curriculum battles came about because parents got involved," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "Parents were going nuts over what their kids were getting or not getting."
Many of those parents have attacked teachers' groups like the National Education Association, which strongly supports the teaching of evolution in the schools.
Michael Ponds, a spokesman for the NEA, said his group respects local control of school curricula. But he blames religious special interest groups for attacking the NEA in its support of evolution, tolerance of alternative sexual lifestyles and contraception.
"The people involved in these efforts are people with kids in the public schools who want to have an impact," said Ponds. "But there are others who are part of an overall effort to insert religious instruction in the schools and undermine the public schools."
Not surprisingly, there are disagreements over the disagreements. Allen said parents are rising up because they feel the public schools have been hijacked by an agenda that emphasizes "warm and fuzzy" teaching techniques in math, reading, science and history over traditional, more practical methods.
"You should have a core set of knowledge in front of you that is content-rich," she said. "We should stop worrying about whether kids are entertained and start worrying about whether they have knowledge in these areas."
While children are inundated with social messages about diversity, oppression and sexuality, they are missing out on the basics, she added. "It’s really a debate over what our kids should know."
Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Department of Education, said the state has heard from all corners in its own process of updating curriculum guidelines.
It has so far resisted pressure to put more emphasis on teaching about the Founding Fathers by naming them specifically in the proposed guidelines. It is also mediating the interests of teachers who want more emphasis on their particular subject areas.
The New Jersey debates have so far been tame compared to other states, said Vespucci. But the key is to ensure the interests of the child always come before any other, he noted.
"Everyone has different motivations that they bring to the debate," he said. "Your main goal is to keep in mind that this is for the students and not for the adults and their special interests."