Fate of state’s public schools looms large as a new legislative session approaches
"I worry deeply for the future of public education in New Hampshire. It is under attack like never before." (Photo of Concord High School by Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)
When I was a senior at UNH and preparing to become an educator, I often announced to others: “I will never teach in New Hampshire.” Why did twenty-something me feel so strongly about this? It wasn’t because I didn’t love it here. It was because I could not imagine teaching in a place that didn’t value education.
It was in the late 1990s when the inequitable funding of New Hampshire public schools was coming to a head with the Claremont lawsuit. Finally, the state Supreme Court agreed that the state had not lived up to its promise as the result of a similar lawsuit in the 1980s to fully fund public education for all students, regardless of their ZIP code.
As a young person I was watching our elected officials argue about our public schools and our students as though they were cogs in a machine, not human beings full of potential. I watched as those same people sought to pit one town against another, as though some children were inherently better than others simply because of where they were born or who their parents were. I watched as former governor Craig Benson vetoed the state budget in 2003, thus leaving education with next to nothing.
If funding is a reflection of the shared values of a community, then the horrific education funding in the state of New Hampshire during this time was a clear signal to me. Why would I want to work in a place that didn’t value its students, its teachers, and its schools? Why would I want to raise children in a state that didn’t prioritize their futures?
At barely 21 years old, I hadn’t yet learned the life lesson to never say never. There’s just something about New Hampshire and after three years teaching elsewhere, I came home and did what I said I would never do. I became a public educator, in my hometown of all places. Luckily, by this point I had learned that saying “I will never” does nothing.
Now, over 20 years later, not only has nothing changed, but it’s gotten worse. I am still watching our elected officials and my heart is breaking.
This makes me wonder: What is the New Hampshire that we love?
I don’t think that we are able to answer that question, and as a result there has been a lot of misguided legislation coming out of the State House in the last few years. In 2021, the Legislature inserted divisive concepts legislation into the state budget, which then passed and was signed by the governor. This legislation limits what teachers can talk about in the classroom. Couched in language that claims to simply prevent students from discrimination, it actually allows any student or parent to file formal human rights violations complaints that can result in an educator losing their license. It empowers those with racist, bigoted, and nationalist ideologies to intimidate and silence educators from engaging in honest and meaningful conversations couched in reality, not fear.
Who decides what makes something divisive? Does a white nationalist get to claim that antisemitism is divisive? Does a bigot get to claim that supporting our LGBTQ students is divisive? According to this law, yes. And it’s working. For example, teachers in some school districts have been told to remove LGBTQ ally materials. Others have been contacted by the FBI because their names were on a list circulated by the Proud Boys. The Moms for Liberty announced a bounty that would award $500 to the first person to “catch” a New Hampshire teacher breaking the law. This was not decried by Frank Edelblut, the commissioner of education. Rather, he was photographed at an event showing support for the group. Spoiler alert: Despite numerous complaints and thousands of dollars in litigation, not a single educator has been found to be in violation of this law.
Is this the New Hampshire we love?
The 2022 legislative session saw well over 100 bills related to education. Many of them scared me – and that was the point. Rep. Alicia Lekas (Hudson) sponsored House Bill 1255, also known as a teacher loyalty bill, that would have further limited what teachers teach in the classroom. It was co-sponsored by Reps. Keith Ammon (New Boston), Glenn Cordelli (Tuftonboro), Erica Layon (Derry), and Tony Lekas (Hudson). While speaking out in support of this legislation, sponsors bemoaned that students “don’t know anything about real history and stuff like that,” that “if you’re going to teach about the founding of the country you need to teach in a proper setting,” and that if “you are going to teach, you gotta do a good job of it.” I don’t mean to sound too much like your high school English teacher, but none of those statements make any sense. This legislation did not move forward, but sponsors have said they plan to re-introduce a revised version in the 2023 legislative session.
Is this the New Hampshire that we love?
Further, with House Bill 1431, our legislators attempted to bring forward a parental bill of rights. This bill would have allowed parents to direct the education of their children in unprecedented and potentially harmful ways. Similar to other legislation, the language was grounded in what sound like good ideas. Why wouldn’t we want parents to have rights to their child’s education? Of course we do. Here’s the thing: Parents already have rights. If I object to a book being taught in my child’s class, I can request alternative materials. If I don’t want my child to receive sex education at school, I can opt her out.
This wasn’t about making sure parents are included in their child’s education. This legislation would have allowed parents to control their child in ways that could be life threatening. If a child reported abuse by a parent to the school, this would have required that the school report that back to the parent. If a child came to a teacher and shared that they were not safe at home because of their sexuality, this would have required that teacher to call the parents and tell them that.
Proponents argued that parents are being left out of conversations about their children. Frankly, if a child is unsafe at home, then the parent should be left out of the conversation. Where is the child’s right to safety, access to education, and privacy?
Misguided laws like this protect abusers, not children. If you’re telling me that in New Hampshire those people need protection, you are at best delusional and at worst enabling child abuse. While this legislation did not move forward, it has already been re-filed for the 2023 legislative session.
Is this the New Hampshire that we love?
I worry deeply for the future of public education in New Hampshire. It is under attack like never before. I worry about our young people who are watching their political leaders make snap judgments and buy into conspiracy theories that are not grounded in reality. The assault on teachers and schools has been a lot to take in, but just like twenty-something me from seemingly forever ago, I still believe in the power of our public schools, but with an even greater passion and an even more alarming sense of urgency. Our classrooms are filled with students who need us and who deserve an honest and student-affirming education.
As a new legislative session begins and new legislators take their seats in our State House, looming large will be the fate of our public schools. Interestingly, this year, there is only a very slim Republican majority (201-198), which means that legislators on both sides of the aisle are going to need to work together to get anything done. Will this allow for a collective reboot of education policy in ways that actually serves our schools and finds sustainable and purposeful ways to support all children? Or will it continue to divide, anger, and further disenfranchise teachers and students?
Together, we need to consider: Who do we want to shape the conditions of our children’s schools? Whose voices do we want to center as we shape policy? Whose voices are being left out of the conversation?
I know the New Hampshire that I love. It is one that values its young people as the foundation of our future; it is one that recognizes its educators as some of the best in the nation; it is the one that chooses hope over fear, truth over conspiracy, love over division. I think that’s what you love, too.
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