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Despite New State Law, Debate Continues Over Discussing Race And Equity in N.H. Schools

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Dan Tuohy for NHPR
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Many classrooms are empty for the summer, but in New Hampshire and other states, the debate over curricula is intensifying.

Pressure is mounting from parents and conservative activists who say some New Hampshire schools’ efforts to address racism are indoctrinating students with liberal bias. And just recently, Gov. Chris Sununu signed into law a provision limiting certain kinds of teaching and training on racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.

The law may do little to change what’s taught in classrooms, but it puts New Hampshire at the forefront of a national culture war over curricula, race, and equity in schools.

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New Hampshire Joins Wave of GOP-Lead Education Reform

New Hampshire is one of six states to pass a law restricting certain kinds of teachings on race and gender. 

Dozens of other states have introduced similar measures, all inspired by former President Trump’s efforts last year to ban ‘divisive concepts’ in workplace training and to restore ‘patriotic education’ in schools. 

Trump’s move came as many schools and workplaces were responding to calls last summer by anti-racist and Black Lives Matter activists to fight systemic racism and prioritize diversity and inclusion.

President Biden reversed Trump’s orders, but Republican state lawmakers made them key priorities this year

Conservative media outlets are paying close attention to this battle, and in some cases promoting misinformation about what is being taught in schools.

Proponents of the new laws say they are necessary to stop the spread of Critical Race Theory or ‘CRT’. Critical Race Theory was developed by legal scholars in the 1970’s and 1980’s and is the idea that racism is embedded in American laws and institutions, and not just the product of explicit bias. Some diversity and equity trainings incorporate this framework, but CRT is not part of K-12 curricula. However, the term has become a catchall among conservative activists to describe certain conversations about racism and white privilege.

What the Law Does (and Doesn’t) Ban

New Hampshire’s new law, which was introduced as a bill banning ‘Divisive Concepts’, is now called the ‘Right to Freedom From Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education.’

It does not ban teaching about race and racism. It bans teaching that certain people are inherently superior or inferior or that certain people are inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive  even if unconsciously. And it promotes teaching people to treat others equally and/or ‘without regard’ to their differences.

Most of what’s outlawed is not in curricula now.

If someone believes teachers have violated the law, they can sue a school district, and the New Hampshire State Board of Education can discipline a teacher for violating the state’s code of conduct. 

National Movement Gets Local Boost 

Schools are awaiting technical guidance from the New Hampshire Department of Education on what this law could look like in practice. Attorneys for school districts and administrator and teacher associations are also trying to figure out what could get schools and teachers into legal trouble.

But in the meantime, local activists and conservative organizations are stepping up the pressure on schools to explain – and in some cases, stop – their diversity and equity efforts.

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Credit Sarah Gibson / NHPR
A portion of a presentation distributed by the 603 Alliance, obtained by NHPR.

At a recent Exeter School Board meeting, one parent urged the school to “teach kindness and respect” rather than teach first-graders about the problems of racism. Other attendees grilled the school board on why it hired an equity-focused consultant group to provide professional development, accusing the school of indoctrination and Marxism.

In Hollis, one group is sending fliers to residents’ mailboxes warning of the ‘radical influences’ of Critical Race Theory in local schools. The flier includes anonymous quotes from students who say they are silenced for their political beliefs, and it urges people to contact school officials. 

The group, AboutHollis, told NHPR that the superintendent is meeting with concerned parents and students. Teachers in Hollis told NHPR they didn’t know what Critical Race Theory was until the fliers were sent out, but that the school is trying to be inclusive of everyone – including students of color.

Some conservative organizations are also getting involved. Reopen NH, which organized against COVID restrictions and masks during lockdown, has been posting about Critical Race Theory and urging people to attend school board meetings. So have some white nationalist groups.

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Credit Sarah Gibson / NHPR
A screenshot of a Telegram message from Reopen NH, obtained by NHPR.

The 603 Alliance recently released a toolkit on how to fight Critical Race Theory, which includes getting candidates to commit to an anti-CRT position and filing Right to Know requests with districts for training materials on diversity and equity.

Are Uncomfortable Conversations ‘Not Worth the Risk’?

NHPR spoke with some teachers who say they don’t plan to change their lesson plans, but others say the scrutiny on these conversations will result in self-censorship, even if what’s being discussed in schools isn’t against the law.

Dottie Morris, an equity and inclusion trainer who resigned from the state’s Diversity and Inclusion Council over this new law, says some of the K-12 teachers she works with plan to stop assigning books that would require context about white supremacy and racism.

“I’ve heard people in a quandary,” she says. “How can we allow students to learn how to navigate difficult conversations if there’s anxiety about having those, and if we as adults can’t even do it?”  

Elizabeth Dubrelle, who trains teachers on how to teach civics and social studies at the New Hampshire Historical Society, says it’s a blow to an area of education that already lacks robust standards.

“Social studies was already hanging on by its fingernail,” she says. “My concern is that schools will decide that since it’s already in peril, it’s not worth the risk and they’ll just do the bare minimum.”

The new law allows teachers to discuss the historical existence of ideas, so in theory, teaching about The Voting Rights Act and the Civil War shouldn’t be a problem. 

But Misty Crompton, a middle school teacher in Derry, says students often try to make sense of the past by talking about the present.

“If there’s difficult truths about our history and students have questions about those things, you can’t just ignore them,” she says. 

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