Editorial: NH public education is under attack

Published: 5/29/2022 6:02:48 AM
Modified: 5/29/2022 6:00:45 AM

Even as educators were struggling with unprecedented instructional, logistical, behavioral and public health challenges over the past couple of plague years, New Hampshire’s Republican legislators and bureaucrats were bringing a poisoned apple to Teacher Depreciation Day.

This antagonism, combined with the stress of dealing with COVID and other societal pressures, has resulted in a flood of educators leaving their jobs, and sometimes the field entirely, as staff writer Liz Sauchelli documented earlier this month. An accident? We don’t think so. In fact, it’s reasonable to infer that the whole point of persecuting teachers and administrators is to undermine public education with the object of limiting students’ exposure to information and concepts that the Republican right-wing deems objectionable.

The hostility of New Hampshire state government has manifested in so many ways it is hard to know where to begin. But we’ll start with the Education Freedom Account program, which provides incentives to parents to pull their children out of public schools. It allows them to siphon off the state’s per-pupil adequacy grant from their local public schools and funnel those taxpayer dollars to largely unaccountable private education entities.

And then there’s the “divisive concepts” law, which circumscribes instruction about racial and gender equity in a manner sufficiently vague and punitive to lead any educator who wishes to retain teaching credentials to avoid the topic altogether. Which is the point.

Also on the legislative agenda this year was an update and expansion of a Cold-War-era “teacher loyalty” law, which would have confined instruction in American history to myth-making at the expense of truth-telling. That particular one failed, but you can expect it back again in different forms in future legislative sessions.

Gov. Chris Sununu gave himself a pat on the back recently for vetoing a bill that would have prohibited schools from implementing mask requirements. “Just because we may not like a local decision does not mean we should remove their authority,” Sununu said. “One of the state’s foremost responsibilities is to know the limits of its power.”

The Legislature manifestly knows no such limits. Sununu did not explain, however, how his endorsement of local control squares with guidance issued by his state Education Department in February to the effect that maintaining mask mandates would run afoul of state laws requiring that each student be provided with equitable access to education. That warning was combined with new rules issued that same month that prohibited schools from shifting to fully remote or hybrid instruction because of COVID-19 outbreaks. The predictable result was what happened this month at the Lyme School, which had to close for several days because of an outbreak among students and staff.

And certainly let’s not forget the “Parental Bill of Rights,” which narrowly failed in the Legislature after Sununu promised to veto it. That legislation would have required school personnel to betray the trust of students who confide in them by disclosing to parents discussion of intimate issues such as questions of gender identification or sexual orientation. This bill was portrayed as an effort to allow parents to assist and support children in making transformative decisions; more likely, it was an effort to discourage youth from exploring such questions with adults other than their parents. Backers of this legislation asserted that parents can be trusted to pursue the best interests of their children; the prevalence of emotional and physical child abuse and family dysfunction in New Hampshire, as elsewhere, strongly suggests otherwise.

Such legislation has undoubtedly played a role in encouraging a small but vocal minority of parents to imagine that their educational policy preferences are “rights” that can be asserted at the expense of the well-being of the majority of students and public school staff.

As Mascoma Valley School Superintendent Amanda Isabelle said, “There’s a very loud minority that just continue to complain that schools aren’t good enough, that we don’t do enough, that there’s not enough communication and discipline. It’s hard to do a job when you don’t feel appreciated by your community.”

Without a doubt, parents and others who believe that public education is a pillar of the democratic experiment ought to take every opportunity to express gratitude for the heroic efforts teachers, administrators and staff have made to minimize the effects of the pandemic on children.

But that’s not enough. People who believe in the importance of vibrant public schools that are alive to the issues of the day need to devote time, money, organization and energy to breaking the grip of Republican extremists on the New Hampshire Legislature in the November elections. They have gone to war on public education; those who cherish it need to fight back.

Valley News

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