Democrats presented legislation to the House Education Committee aimed at the “divisive concepts” law. (Brandon Bell | Getty Images)
Institutional racism isn’t an abstract concept to Asma Elhuni. As a Muslim immigrant to America, Elhuni now has seen it applied to her throughout her years living in the United States – whether in the additional questions she’s faced in airport security or in the treatment she’s seen people of her faith receive from other citizens, especially after Sept. 11, 2001.
“You see, to me it’s not a question of whether institutional racism exists,” Elhuni told the House Education Committee Tuesday. “It exists in our country. It exists in our state. I live it, my community lives it.”
The experiences are something that Elhuni believes should be discussed by all New Hampshire residents, including in the state’s classrooms. But to Elhuni, the passage last year of a law that restricts certain teaching techniques around race and structural oppression has silenced those conversations before they can begin.
Elhuni, the New Hampshire movement politics director for the progressive advocacy group Rights and Democracy, had shown up to the committee to advocate for a bill to repeal last year’s teaching law, one of three bills Democrats presented to the committee Tuesday aimed at the restrictions.
One bill, House Bill 1576, would repeal the law, often referred to as the “divisive concepts” law. Another, House Bill 1090, would repeal it and replace it with language that would explicitly protect teachers from civil liability for “engaging in any form of instruction concerning the historical or current experiences of any group that is protected from discrimination.”
The bills seek to “recognize the need to provide diverse educational approaches,” prime sponsor Rep. Charlotte DiLorenzo, a Newmarket Democrat, said Tuesday.
But Republicans on the committee expressed skepticism about the bills, arguing the new law is designed to address the views of parents who feel that instruction around systemic oppression is itself discriminatory.
“When people object, it’s generally because the instruction is discriminatory and they do feel discriminated against,” said Rep. Alicia Lekas, a Hudson Republican who took aim at the protections for teaching in House Bill 1090.
“By saying it that way, you’re almost negating the law against discrimination, because the form of instruction can be discriminatory in and of itself,” Lekas said.
Democrats floated another bill Tuesday that would keep the law in place but change the complaint mechanism. Under last year’s law, parents can bring complaints against teachers directly to the Commission for Human Rights or bring a lawsuit in superior court – actions that could result in an eventual loss of the teacher’s license.
The bill presented Tuesday, House Bill 1638, would require the grievance process to begin within the SAU, changing the law so that parents would need to go to the teacher’s superintendent first within 15 days of the alleged incident.
The bill would require the school superintendent to carry out the investigation. If the aggrieved party disagreed with the result, they could appeal it to the Department of Education, which in turn could move the complaint to the Commission for Human Rights.
DiLorenzo, who also sponsored that bill, said it would allow a resolution to be reached locally without the teacher facing a potential loss of license.
“We need to trust that local administrators will complete a thorough investigation and will – without prejudice – decide on whether the basis of the complaint has merit,” DiLorenzo said.
But Republicans argued the alternate process could make it harder for parents to submit complaints. Lekas asked how the bill would address discrimination on the part of the superintendent.
All three bills will head to a vote in the House Education Committee and a vote on the House floor in the coming weeks.
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