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More N.H. School Districts Voice Opposition To ‘Divisive Concepts’ Bill

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Dan Tuohy / NHPR
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New Hampshire's largest school district could become the latest to publicly oppose a controversial bill that would deny state funding to any businesses, schools, or organizations that spread “divisive concepts” about racism and sexism.

The Manchester school board’s policy committee plans to meet Tuesday to discuss whether to send a letter to the members of the state House of Representatives, Senate and Executive Council condemning the proposal.

The bill, modeled after a rescinded order from former President Donald Trump, has intensified debate in school communities about the role of anti-racism, inclusivity, and diversity efforts.

A number of school districts where those efforts are underway say that some of this work would continue if the bill became law, but they warn it could have a chilling effect on classroom discussion, curriculum and professional development.

The Manchester School District, which has made educational equity a major goal in the past year, says the bill would make this harder to achieve.

“We MUST be able to talk about these issues and not simply pretend they don't exist because they make some of us feel uncomfortable talking about them,” reads the board’s draft letter.

The Oyster River School district was one of the first to denounce the proposal, which is supported by State House Republicans and has been included in the House version of the next state budget. Assistant superintendent Todd Allen said the district is four years into a partnership with New Hampshire Listens to improve its approach to race and equity, and it is currently re-examining its anti-racism policy.

Allen said the district allows families to remove their kids from certain classes or activities they don’t agree with. But he said, so far, he doesn’t view Oyster River’s handling of race and racism as divisive.

“There’s nothing in what we’re doing that’s trying to indoctrinate anybody or push people into feeling negatively about who they are and what their feelings are; it involves asking questions and challenging structures and wondering if there’s a better way to think,” he said.

A number of school leaders say that as debate over the “divisive concepts” proposal has intensified, parents have contacted them with concerns that their children are being taught critical race theory and that white identity is bad. In some cases, trainings or curriculum are informed by critical race theory, but leaders say their ultimate goal is to make their schools more – not less – inclusive.

Parents opposed to their districts’ handling of this issue are also in touch with state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. Both Gov. Chris Sununu’s office and Commissioner Edleblut say the department does not provide guidance to districts on this, but Edelblut and the state Board of Education have heard presentations about the issue from at least one group, 1776 Unites.

That group was started last year by Black academics and activists in response to the New York Times “1619 project.” It provides curriculum to “celebrate black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase African-Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding ideals.”

In March, Ian Rowe, a founding member of 1776 Unites and a fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, presented to the state Board of Education

“Across the county, America’s institutions - whether it be colleges and universities, businesses, government, the media, our K-12 schools - are enforcing this cynical, intolerant orthodoxy that requires us to view each other based on immutable characteristics like skin color, gender, sexual orientation,” he said in that presentation. “It pits us against each other.”

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Credit Courtesy of Hopkinton School District/Facebook
The Hopkinton School Board wrote a letter to lawmakers in opposition to HB 544 earlier this month.

Edelblut shared the presentation with Hopkinton superintendent Steve Chamberlain after fielding concerns from one resident about anti-racism efforts in the Hopkinton School District.

Chamberlain said he watched the video and is open to incorporating the ideas as they develop a plan for “culturally responsive teaching and learning” in partnership with consultants at Keene State College. But he says he hopes the state Department of Education “presents all evidence-based practices” and “embraces all different opinions” on how to address racism and teach about race.

“These are even uncomfortable conversations for me,” Chamberlain said. “We are not a culturally diverse community. So I want to make sure we are learning from others and how we can prepare our students for what is most likely a very culturally diverse future.”