At State House, teachers push back against efforts to regulate instruction

By: - January 24, 2022 5:45 am
Rear view of students sitting with hands raised in classroom

House Bill 1255 would create an area of statute centered on “teachers’ loyalty” that seeks to target any teachings that the United States was founded on slavery. (Getty Images) 

One bill would test public school teachers’ loyalty to the United States. Another would give parents the power to opt their children out of lessons they find objectionable. 

A pair of bills aimed at public school classrooms have driven a fresh round of debate in the State House over the balance between teacher discretion and parental oversight.

The Republican-backed bills, which were taken up by the House Education Committee Thursday, seek to advance mechanisms for parents to exert more control over their school curriculum, part of an effort the party has made to curtail the perceived intrusion of “critical race theory” into public schools. 

“My intent is to make sure that teachers are educating and not indoctrinating,” said Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican who sponsored the teacher loyalty bill, House Bill 1255

Conservatives already made major strides toward that goal in 2021, when the Legislature passed a law banning certain concepts around race and gender from being taught in public schools, and allowing parents to sue teachers they believed were in violation. The new legislation this year adds further requirements for teachers. 

House Bill 1015 would expand the existing statute that requires that teachers provide two weeks of advanced notice of their curriculum for health and sex education in schools. The bill would require teachers to provide notice of materials for all courses, and allow parents to lodge objections to materials they found objectionable and require the school to provide alternative instruction. 

HB 1255 would create an area of statute centered on “teachers’ loyalty” that seeks to target any teachings that the United States was founded on slavery. 

“No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America in New Hampshire public schools which does not include the worldwide context of now outdated and discouraged practices,” the bill states. “Such prohibition includes but is not limited to teaching that the United States was founded on racism.” 

Teachers that are in violation could find themselves facing disciplinary sanctions from the State Board of Education, including a loss of their license, the bill states.

For the teachers who came to the State House Thursday, the newly proposed bills are the latest potential challenge to their ability to teach freely. 

Some took issue with HB 1015, testifying that a mandatory two weeks of notice of all course materials could make spontaneous lessons difficult to pull off.

“Good teachers adjust their lessons daily,” said Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, a former eighth-grade social studies teacher. “…Two weeks in advance isn’t always what’s going to be happening in the classroom.”

Others took aim at the loyalty bill. 

“Questioning my loyalty is demeaning,” said Jennifer Given, a history teacher in the state. “Questioning my loyalty is an insult. The idea that I show up to work every day for low wages and in unsafe conditions, and I’m not loyal, I mean, I would love to know what your definition of loyalty is.” 

Given, who teaches AP World History, said her lessons demonstrate the scope of slavery and forced labor around the world, and include nuance. But she said that certain lessons were clear cut: fascism and slavery are wrong. Teaching that, she said, is not indoctrination. 

“The Legislature is in my view over-solving the problem by reaching so far into my classroom as to tell me what I can and cannot say in order to try to address some kind of vague assertion that people have made or somebody watched a YouTube video (about),” Given said. 

Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Hampshire, echoed the point. 

“The problem with saying you don’t want indoctrination is indoctrination is in the eye of the beholder,” Howes said. “It is a very subjective term. It is a very vague term. …And when you tie that to people’s livelihoods, then you have put a punishment over something that is vague and subjective.”

A parent who testified, Russan Chester, had a different view. Teachers should remove any intention of teaching students what to think about historical events, Chester argued to lawmakers, and let students decide themselves.

“I would argue that it’s not our educators’ job to teach that slavery is wrong –  although it is, in my opinion,” Chester said. “It’s not the teacher’s job to teach that Jim Crow laws were wrong, or what happened to the Japanese Americans in our country was wrong. What’s important is you teach them the facts. …You provide them with the ability to understand and form their own philosophies and opinions about what is and is not their truths.”

Lekas, speaking to her bill, sought to draw a distinction in terms. 

“There’s a big difference between education and indoctrination,” she said. “It is one thing to try to teach religion, and dive into conflicts that have happened as a result of it.” 

But, “if I were to try to persuade you that my religion is the right religion – if I were to ask questions on a test that if you didn’t go along with that, then you got a bad grade, that’s indoctrination,” Lekas said. 

One former student opposed the bill for personal reasons. When Jonah Wheeler attended school in Peterborough, he was the only Black person in his school. In third grade, ahead of a class introducing the life and works of Martin Luther King, his teacher took him aside one on one, Wheeler recalled to the committee. 

“And she told me about Martin Luther King, sort of separate from the conversation that we were having in the classroom,” Wheeler said. “Because she knew that the conversation around King, the realities around what he was doing in that time, it’s too much for a third-grader. But if you’re a third-grader who has no mentor to look to, a third-grader who has no one who he can say, ‘Hey, that’s me,’ then you need to know that history. Because you need to know who you are.”

It was the kind of conversation that Wheeler believes might not have been possible under the recent teaching restriction law or the proposed teacher loyalty bill. But it was one that he thought was important to be had freely and openly. 

“We all have some understanding of the horrors that government or unchecked government can do to people,” Wheeler said. “Why would we not want the future leaders of our country, the future educators of our country, to have a full and fruitful discussion about those horrors?”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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