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N.H.'s top education official accuses teachers of ‘knowingly dismantling’ family values

Sarah Gibson for NHPR
New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut published a 74-page document of redacted classroom materials that parents say conflict with their values.

New Hampshire’s recently adopted law restricting certain kinds of teaching about racism has yet to yield any charges against teachers. But the state’s top education official says he’s still concerned that teachers are “knowingly dismantling the foundations” of families’ values.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who has aligned himself with conservative parents and activists over his more than five years in office, warned in an op-ed last week that New Hampshire was “not immune” to efforts by teachers to insert their biases into the classroom and reshape families’ values on gender, race, sexuality, and capitalism.

The op-ed is accompanied by a 74-page document compiled from miscellaneous items: text exchanges with the sender’s and recipient’s names blacked out; grainy photos of post-it notes; and images of classroom materials and a teacher’s desk. Edelblut said some of the materials, which he presented with no identifying information or context, were sent by parents to the Department of Education.

“When educators overstep, it weakens the ability for parents to achieve the values they believe to be best for their children, and it squanders the credibility of the profession as a whole,” Edelblut wrote in his op-ed.

Teachers, school administrators, and teachers’ unions slammed the op-ed as part of what they say is an effort by Edelblut to sow distrust in public education and embolden parents who oppose schools’ efforts to support marginalized students.

“He’s pretty desperate to portray public education in the most negative light possible,” said Carl Ladd, director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. “I think it’s very dangerous for the man who’s leading the public education system in our state to have such a negative view of the work being done by schools and communities to welcome students and be a safe haven regardless of students’ backgrounds.”

In his op-ed, Edelblut writes that students should learn about capitalism and socialism, but that “when walls of one New Hampshire classroom are adorned with posters extolling the virtues of socialism, the educators undermine the values of families.”

In the accompanying document, one photo shows a poster about socialism reading: “All for One and One for All.” It defines socialism as an economic ideology “where the basic means of production is primarily owned and regulated by the government” and says that most European countries have a socialist economies.

In an interview with NHPR, Edelblut said he had not visited the classroom where the poster was photographed and didn’t know what other posters were there nor how the teacher had presented the topic.

“I'm just being transparent with actual artifacts from New Hampshire schools,” Edelblut said. “And I think that some of those artifacts run the risk of undermining the effectiveness of all of our educators.”

Some of the complaints described by Edelblut relate to questionnaires about students’ preferred names and pronouns, as well as elementary and middle school curriculum related to sex and sexual orientation.

One screenshot includes an introductory slide show from an art teacher who uses they/them pronouns and says they believe Black Lives Matter and support LGBT students.

When asked how schools should balance respect for familys’ values with anti-discrimination policies that protect students and staff, the Commissioner said those questions would be dealt with on a case by case basis and should be directed to the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission.

Concerns about curriculum, but no violations found of new anti-CRT bill

Gov. Chris Sununu said he shared some of the concerns raised by Edelblut but distanced himself from the commissioner’s tactics.

“His method of bringing this stuff to light might be a little different than my approach,” Sununu told NHPR. “The most important thing is: how can we be constructive with local districts and local leadership to make sure parents are being heard and at least they know if they have a complaint, it’s not going into a vacuum.”

Most schools have a system for addressing complaints about curriculum, starting first with the teacher and moving to more senior administration.

The state also has established a separate process at the Human Rights Commission to deal with complaints regarding a controversial new law that bans certain teachings on racism and other forms of oppression.

That law was passed last year amidst allegations by Republican lawmakers and Edelblut that Critical Race Theory was being taught in schools. It came despite testimony from many in New Hampshire’s education system that Critical Race Theory was not a part of the curriculum in public schools.

So far, the Human Rights Commission says no charges have been filed against teachers under the new law.

But the Department of Education continues to investigate when parents email or call with complaints about classroom curriculum and teacher bias. In some cases, parents report concerns directly to the Department of Education after having attempted to contact teachers and administrators. Other times, they go straight to Edelblut, who has made a habit of sharing his cell phone number with parents.

According to documents attached to Edelblut’s op-ed and others obtained by NHPR through right-to-know requests, a department employee tasked with investigating teacher misconduct, including abuse, is part of a team that follows up with parents and schools on complaints about curriculum lodged by members of the public.

“Edelblut is using the department as an investigative tool, not into charges of misconduct - just complaints,” said Ladd, with the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. “I’m not going to call it a witch hunt, but it’s pretty close.”

Advocate for some parents, even when fighting their school system

The 74-page document, which Edeblut presented at a recent State Board of Education meeting, reflects a level of alarm about liberal bias in schools that animates conservative media outlets, many Republican policymakers, and those aligned with the growing conservative “parents’ rights” movement.

Many of these fights revolve around whether and how schools should teach students about racial identity, racism, and issues related to gender, sexuality, and sexual orientation.

In some states, this has taken the form of bills banning gender-affirming medical care and protections for transgender youth and prohibiting discussions about sexual identity or orientation.

In New Hampshire, parents have brought lawsuits against at least three school districts over their inclusion policies for transgender students, alleging that these violate other students’ religious rights and right to free speech and, in some cases, deny parents’ information about their children’s gender and sexuality.

Edelblut, a former Republican lawmaker who homeschooled all seven of his children, has long positioned himself as a champion of 'family values' and parental rights, even when those parents are at odds with their public school over curriculum, inclusion policies or COVID mitigation measures like masks.

When asked whether using they/them pronouns subverted family values, Edelblut said his personal values system “was not the point” of the op-ed.

“Value systems are as different as the children themselves,” he said. “One family may value one thing, and another family values another. All that we have done here through this is try to protect education's sacred trust, by allowing transparency in terms of some of the content that has proven to be of concern to some families.”

Jennifer Given, a social studies teacher at Hollis-Brookline High School, said Edelblut’s approach reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between public schools and families.

“No one's trying to prevent them from teaching their kids their values,” she said. “What we are trying to do is make sure that fact and acceptance of diverse viewpoints are included in a public school system. A student needs to be mindful that their family's values are not universal. That's just part of living in the melting pot that is the United States.”

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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