By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House Education Committee Tuesday heard the good, the bad, and the ugly about the state’s new divisive concepts law.
One bill would repeal the law passed as part of the budget package last year, after the original bill did not make it out of the House, and the other would repeal it and replace it with greater protection for teachers.
Supporters of the two bills, House Bills 1090 and 1576, said the new law’s vagueness and penalties have had a chilling effect on public education, diminishing the richness of diversity for students, and has led to banning topics students should discuss.
The often emotional testimony drew parents, educators, advocates and immigrants all with stories to tell.
“Students deserve an honest education that will enable them to learn from the mistakes of the past and create a better nation,” said one of the bill’s prime sponsors, Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo, D-Newmarket.
But opponents said the law has begun to address the issue of teacher and administrative advocacy, the need for greater parental involvement in what is taught, and the lack of transparency in schools.
Jaima Wilder of Hollis is the parent of two public school children. She said she is seen as a domestic terrorist because she fights for children.
“Education should not divide children and make them feel guilty for the sins of their forefathers,” Wilder said. “It is not the job of educators to tell children how to believe and to divide our nation.”
The president of the state’s largest teachers union, Megan Tuttle of NEA-NH, said the union asked the Department of Education for specifics of what can and what cannot be taught under the law.
She said the union claimed from the beginning the law would have a chilling effect on education in the state, and from what she has seen so far this year that is true.
“New Hampshire is consistently ranked in the top three or four states for public education,” Tuttle said. “Students lose when teachers are muzzled by this law.”
She said students are disadvantaged by the law because they are not allowed to form an opinion or perspective, noting teachers have to teach material in a vacuum.
Committee member Rep. Alicia Lekas, R-Hudson, asked Tuttle and others who testified in support of the two bills, what was vague about the law.
Tuttle said her union wrote a letter seeking specifics after the law was passed, and soon after the department and the Attorney General’s Office released their guidance, but that was more general and another letter was sent asking for specific books and topics that would be prohibited under the law.
Tuttle said the Department of Education has not responded to that letter.
Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union — NH noted his organization has filed suit against the law, based on its ambiguity, which he called very problematic. According to Bissonnette, the law is unclear and vague without the necessary guidance to educators, who face arbitrary and compensatory punishment.
Bissonnette noted the law results from an executive order by former President Donald Trump just prior to the 2020 elections listing 10 banned concepts that included systemic racism and unconscious bias. He noted a federal judge stopped some of the order from implementation.
He said four of the 10 banned concepts are included in the New Hampshire law.
Discussions on race and gender are “absolutely critical,” Bissonnette said, and failure to address these topics is harmful because it is beneficial for students.
Bissonnette added that New Hampshire is seeing greater diversification as a state and having these discussions will help create a greater sense of belonging among those communities.
Bissonnette said his organization prefers House Bill 1090, which repeals the law and replaces it with a provision saying teachers cannot be held civilly liable for teaching the historical or current experiences of any group protected under the state’s anti-discrimination laws.
Currently the law prohibits teaching that any group is inherently superior or inferior to another group.
The teaching is prohibited in public schools and government workplaces or for government contractors.
Ann Marie Banfield, of North Hampton, who was a lobbyist for the conservative Cornerstone Action organization, placed much of the blame for what she called the infusion of radical critical race theory and similar ideas on school administrators.
She said many teachers do not like pushing the agenda administrators champion through professional development programs.
She told about a professional development program in her SUA and said “they are not training teachers to help students, they are training teachers to shame and blame their colleagues.”
She said there was a list of many thing that makes a person a white supremacist including if you pay property taxes.
“I disagree with requiring white people to feel guilty for everything that happened in the past,” Banfield said. “I want Black kids to be empowered, but I do not want to make white kids feel bad like we are doing in New Hampshire. That is why CRT is wrong.”
Committee member Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, asked if Banfield attended the professional development meeting.
Banfield said she did not, but obtained documents that were used at the meeting.
A woman who did not identify herself said critical race theory is anti-white training to disparage their own country.
She did not want teachers abusing children and making them feel like they have some original sin they can’t ever get rid of, when everybody is forgiven.
And she noted, violence against white people by Black people has increased 100 fold.
That was all too much for Asma Elhuni, a Muslim African immigrant who works with Rights and Democracy.
She said she is targeted as a terrorist because of her beliefs and because she is an immigrant, yet she listened to someone say there are no longer white people in school books, that black people are killing white people, and about discrimination against Italians, Irish and Jews, who were all not considered “white people” once upon a time.
“I am disheartened that when truth is spoken, people are attacked,” Elhuni said. “If it is uncomfortable to hear our experience, imagine how it is to live it.”
She urged the committee to pass the two bills repealing the current law.
“Let’s put party lines aside today. People deserve to have their truth. We can get there,” she said, “but we can’t get there when we ban people for speaking their truth. I appeal to your humanity today.”
A proposed change in the law would allow for local review before a complaint is sent to the Commission on Human Rights.
The bill’s prime sponsor, DiLorenzo, said her simple proposal would begin the complaint process through the local School Administrative Unit’s superintendent.
The superintendent, who would know the teacher, and the student’s parents would have three school days to investigate after the complaint is filed, she said to make a determination if it should go forward or if there is no basis for the complaint.
The superintendent would inform the parents of the decision.
“We need to trust the complaint will have a thorough investigation and use that information as the basis of determining if the complaint has merit,” DiLorenzo said. “The end result could be a learning process for all involved.”
If the complaint has merit, it would go to the Commission on Human Rights or the Attorney General’s Office under the bill.
If the parents object to the finding of the superintendent, the decision could be appealed to the State Board of Education or the Commission for Civil Rights, or to superior court, under the proposed legislation.
DiLorenzo was the only person to testify on the bill.
Current complaints go to the Commission on Human Rights after being vetted by the Department of Education. There have been complaints filed about teachers’ lessons, but none have resulted in a formal investigation with the Human Rights Commission.
The Department of Education released a complaint form last year, and information on how to file a complaint.
Many educators objected to the form, saying it invited action without a real basis for a complaint.
A local chapter of a national organization Moms for Liberty offered a $500 bounty for the first person who “catches” a teacher violating the new law.
The committee did not take immediate recommendation on any of the three bills.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.