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N.H. Education Commissioner: 'Divisive Concepts' Restrictions Won't Hinder Classroom Conversations

File Photo, NHPR

For the first time since the new state budget was passed, teachers in public schools will have to contend with guidance from the state that limits the way they can talk about certain topics, like racism and sexism.

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Touted by its supporters as an "anti-discrimination" bill, its passage was quickly met with pushback from schools and teachers. Debate over it has become so contentious that white nationalists have showed up at school board meetings in support of banning Critical Race Theory, which isn't mentioned in the legislation.

All Things Considered host Peter Biello talked with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut about what the new restrictions will mean for the coming school year. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Peter Biello: School boards and teachers are finding themselves at this point at the center of a debate over how to teach about racism and sexism. We're seeing protests at school board meetings and in other public settings. What do you make of these battles over these policies?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, we want to make sure that we're focusing our students on the skills that they need to be successful citizens in New Hampshire. As you know, Peter, the legislature passed a law, an anti-discrimination law, Attorney General's Office, the Human Rights Commission and the Department of Education put out some guidance, in terms of how that can be applied in the learning environments, and that guidance provides the right framework for people to be successful in making sure that our students understand these important issues, understand important history, but at the same time, don't come at those topics with any type of bias.

Peter Biello: With respect to this law, teachers have reported that it'll have a chilling effect on what they say in the classroom. They might be so cautious that they won't say certain things that might actually be beneficial to the education of students, because if they know parents can come after them for something they allegedly said in the classroom, they may feel compelled to limit the way they would talk about it. In essence, chilling those very important conversations. Was that the effect you want it to have?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: I don't know that it should chill them, because the guidance that we put out is very clear in terms of what is an allowable conversation that can be taking place. So, if educators believe that somehow this is providing a chilling effect, the conversations that they're having, they should consider what it is that they're talking about, because clearly there's a lot of latitude for instruction in that guidance. And so I think that they should just stick with that. And I think that that will allow them to teach, again, the complete history of America, to have important conversations with students, but in a way that is constructive for those students.

Peter Biello: Overall, I'm curious about you as a Republican, someone whose party has been very interested in having small government and having government sort of stay out of people's lives as much as possible. I'm curious about how this law squares with that, because some may say this is kind of a heavy-handed way for government to intrude on the classroom.

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, I don't actually see it that way. I see it as, really a way for us to demonstrate respect toward one another. The very intent of the law to avoid discriminatory behavior and there have been instances of discrimination in our schools. So this is an important thing to make sure that when we have an instructional environment, that it is free from discrimination so that students can be free to be able to learn and grow as individuals. And without this, what we saw are instances where there wasn't the opportunity for a free and open expression and conversation about certain issues.

Peter Biello: With respect to school board meetings and discussions about policies there, in some cases, white nationalists are showing up at school board meetings, in some cases bullying community members. How do school boards respect free speech and also not be subsumed by these culture wars?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So I think, again, you have to allow people to have a voice in those meetings.

Peter Biello: White nationalists should have a voice in those meetings?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: Let me finish my conversation. I really want to make sure that parents have a voice in meetings. I think that what we also have to do is we need to make sure that by allowing parents to have the primary voice in conversations that are taking place, those parents can help shape the education that our children are receiving.

Peter Biello: As we go into this next school year. What will you be watching for to ensure that the school year is going as you hope it would?

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: So, we'll listen to the feedback that we get from the school system and we'll listen to the feedback that we get from our educators and from our families and, to the extent that we need to make adjustments along the way, we will certainly lean in and do that to make sure that the right kind of guidance are [sic] provided to everyone so that they can all be successful.

Peter Biello: Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, thank you again for speaking with me.

Commissioner Frank Edelblut: Thanks, Peter.

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