Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Donate today to support the journalism you rely on!

Bill advances allowing parental opt-outs for LGBTQ+ topics in school

Sarah Gibson
/
NHPR

This story was originally produced by the New Hampshire Bulletin, an independent local newsroom that allows NHPR and other outlets to republish its reporting.

In early May, Democrats in the House defeated the “Honesty in Education Act.” The bill was the latest effort to require public school teachers to answer parents when they ask about changes to their child’s gender identity.

But another bill is moving forward that supporters say would give parents more control over their children’s instruction in schools – and opponents say would intrude on classroom instruction.

House Bill 1312 would allow parents to opt their children out of any “instruction or program of” sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or gender expression.

Currently, state law allows parents to withdraw their children from classes related to human sexual education. HB 1312 would expand that ability to apply to the additional topics.

Under the existing process, parents must notify the school district in writing that they object to the class material. And the parents must propose alternative instruction that is agreed upon by the school district, and pay for it themselves if there is a cost.

HB 1312 would expand the withdrawal and require school district staff to notify parents at least two weeks in advance of any material that might fall into the category.

Separately, the bill would prevent school districts from requiring that teachers withhold information from parents about their child’s well-being – including information about their sexuality. Individual teachers could still choose not to answer questions from parents about their child’s sexuality, but school districts could not make it a blanket policy under the bill.

The legislation, which passed the House 186-185, appears likely to clear the Republican-led Senate, too; the Senate Education Committee voted to recommend that it pass, in a 3-1, party-line vote.

Supporters say the bill would give parents a greater say in how their children learn about sensitive topics. But opponents said the bill would empower discriminatory views against LGBTQ+ people, and that the notification process would be disruptive to teachers.

“The bill seems to be targeting, and I think stigmatizing, any instruction concerning LGBTQ+ people, and I think that this language really sends the message to LGBTQ+ students that their feelings and identities are something to be shunned, feared, potentially even censored, or not even acknowledged,” said Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

To Sen. Tim Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, the bill would encourage parents to communicate with their children about the topics – knowing that they were coming up in the curriculum – which he said could foster better connections between parents and children.

“Parents should have these discussions with their own children and not have teachers do this. This bill is the prompt for parents to have those conversations.”

Lang said the notification requirements would not prevent school districts from teaching the topics, but would rather allow parents to choose whether to participate in them. And he argued that the bill is not intended to allow parents to withdraw their child from materials that relate to LGBTQ+ people or movements in history.

“It’s just informative to parents,” he said. “Nothing stops the school from doing those classes. The class is allowed. That just says that if you do it though, because this is a sensitive topic, you need to notify parents.”

A class about Harvey Milk, the openly gay San Francisco politician who was assassinated in 1978, would not fall under the definition of instruction of sexual orientation, Lang said, because Milk was a historical figure. But any instruction directed at students themselves that delved into their own sexual orientations or gender identity – such as that in a sex education class – would need to be disclosed, he said.

But representatives of teachers unions said the bill as written does not make those distinctions clear. Teachers might interpret the law to mean that any class that discussed the history of LGBTQ+ rights would need to be noticed ahead of time, opponents said. And English teachers might feel compelled to disclose any book that featured LGBTQ+ characters, and to empower parents to prevent their children from reading those books.

“If you pass this bill that expands the areas that a parent is required notification of and can opt a child out of, where will it stop?” said Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Hampshire. “… Can you study the pay gap between men and women in the same jobs in an economics class, which has to do with policies around gender discrimination?”

Lang disagreed with that characterization; books that happen to include transgender or non-heterosexual characters would not automatically invoke the disclosure requirement, he said. Only instruction that was specifically intended to teach students about sexual orientation or gender identity would need advanced notice, he said.

Brian Hawkins, director of government relations for the National Education Association of New Hampshire, argued that the topics the bill would add to the parental notification law were so broad that teachers would find the law difficult to follow.

“We think that 1312 is another piece of legislation that would significantly limit educators’ ability to teach, and provides far too many instances of vague language and framework to determine when certain actions violate the statute,” Hawkins said.

New Hampshire lawmakers first passed the law allowing parental opt-out from sex ed in 2017. In recent years, Republicans have pushed to allow more parental control over school library books, and have pressed for legislation to require teachers to answer any questions from parents about their child’s preferred pronouns or gender identity in school.

The latest parental notification bill effort, Senate Bill 341, was “indefinitely postponed” earlier this month, on a voting day when House Democrats had a majority over Republicans in the near-evenly divided chamber. That motion means that the bill is dead and that it cannot return as an amendment to another bill this legislative session.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.

Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.