Educators call NH’s ‘teacher loyalty’ bill insulting and vague

  • NEA-NH President Megan Tuttle (left) and AFT-NH President Deb Howes speak before they both testified against HB 1255 before the House Education Commitee at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Rep. Alicia Lekas of Hillsboro, the lead sponsor of HB 1225, speaks to the Education Committee on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Rep. Alicia Lekas of Hillsboro, the lead sponsor of HB 1225, speaks to the Education Committee on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Rep. Arthur Ellison of Concord listens during an Education Committee hearing on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Even with the serious discussion of HB 1255, there were lighter moments that made the main sponsor of the bill, Rep. Alicia Lekas of Hillsboro, laugh along with her colleagues on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • History teacher Jennifer Given testifies against HB 1255 at the Legislative Office Building on Thursday.

  • History teacher Jennifer Given testifies against HB 1255 at the LOB on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • The Education Committee session on HB 1255 at the LOB on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Jonah Wheeler of Peterborough speaks out against HB 1255 at the LOB on Thursday, January 20, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Rep. Michael Moffett leaves after speaking against HB 1225 in its present form at the LOB on Thursday.

Monitor staff
Published: 1/20/2022 4:59:21 PM

Social studies teacher Jennifer Given told state lawmakers Thursday that when she teaches history classes at Hollis Brookline High School, she strives to offer a global perspective that include lessons about slavery.

Given teaches students about slavery that occurred in Rome, China, Egypt and elsewhere throughout human history, and compares different types of forced labor systems.

She testified Thursday at a House Education Committee against a proposed “teacher loyalty” bill that aims to stop New Hampshire educators from “indoctrinating” students with information about the country’s founding. In her testimony, Given pushed back on the bill’s premise, which is that teachers are advancing their own opinions in the classroom and not providing proper context in lessons about early American slavery and racism.

“The legislature is, in my view, over-solving the problem by reaching so far into my classroom as to tell me what I can and cannot say, in order to try to address some kind of vague assertion that people have made,” Given said. “I'm frustrated that I'm here for a bill that is poorly thought-through, poorly defined, and vague. That would not fly in my classroom.” 

The bill, HB1255 “relative to teachers’ loyalty,” seeks to ban New Hampshire public school teachers from promoting any “negative account or representation of the founding and history of the U.S.,” including the idea that the country was founded on racism. The bill updates a piece of Cold War-era law that bans educators from advocating for communism in schools, and adds additional bans on advocating for socialism and Marxism. 

At a House Education Committee hearing Thursday, the bill’s author, Hudson Republican Rep. Alicia Lekas, said the intent of the bill is to stop teachers from “indoctrinating” students. 

“A lot of times, under the idea of teaching, there are – hopefully it's rare, but it definitely is happening in our state – teachers who are not educating but indoctrinating,” Lekas said. “And I see that as very harmful to students and to thought processes and all of that. There's a big difference between education and indoctrination.” 

But Lekas added Thursday that she’s writing an amendment because the bill’s current wording doesn’t reflect her full intentions. She says the idea was to encourage “worldwide context,” adding that she doesn’t want educators to teach that slavery is unique to America, or that slavery doesn’t still exist today. She also plans to add some political philosophies such as fascism to the list of systems teachers would be banned from promoting.

The bill would update New Hampshire RSA 191:1, a 1949 Cold War-era law still on the books that bans teachers from advocating for Communism. The law originally contained another provision that was repealed in the 1990s, that required teachers to take an oath of loyalty and could face a penalty if they didn’t. 

It’s important to remember public school teachers are government employees, said Rep. Keith Ammon, a New Boston Republican, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. 

“We all took an oath to our office, we were sworn in by the governor, we had to raise our hand and take an oath, so it's not something that's uncommon to do,” Ammon said. “We're not asking for the oath to be brought back, but we are asking that the statute be updated to reflect current reality.”

Derry Republican Rep. Erica Layon, another cosponsor, said she is worried students will try to “parrot” teachers’ personal opinions when answering test and essay questions in order to get a better grade.

“I believe that the more we can make sure that the teachers’ opinions are not coloring the lesson plan, the more that we can have honest discussions and truly understand why some of these things are so truly awful,” Layon said. “If they can discuss and play around with the ideas, instead of just hearing that it's bad.”

At Thursday’s hearing, National Education Association New Hampshire president Meagan Tuttle argued against the bill, saying its vague language will prove a problem for teachers in practice.

“This bill raises many, many questions about what it prohibits, particularly in the classroom setting,” Tuttle said. “Where's the line between the teaching and discussion of history versus advocating? I've testified on this before, educators are contacting me...about the fact that they're not having discussions in their classroom, they're afraid to have discussions, critical thinking isn't being allowed, because they're afraid that they're going to be reported for something.” 

A similar law that’s already been passed, New Hampshire’s “freedom from discrimination in education” law, restricts how public school teachers can discuss racism and discrimination in the classroom. The law was passed in June 2021 through a rider bill to the state budget that was signed by Gov. Chris Sununu. The Department of Education has now set up a web page where parents can report a teacher who might indicate that any group of people is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” There are currently two pending lawsuits over the law that claim that it’s unconstitutionally vague and violates freedom of speech.

At the hearing Thursday, Peterborough activist Jonah Wheeler spoke about the challenges of growing up as the only Black student in all-white New Hampshire school, and being grateful for individualized lessons on Martin Luther King Jr. he received from his third-grade teacher.

“What’s sad about this conversation is, I think it comes from a misunderstanding about what we’re trying to do here,” Wheeler said. “...We all have some understanding of the horrors that an unchecked government can do to people. Why would we not want the future leaders of our country, the future educators of our country, to have a full and fruitful discussion about those horrors?” 

Oyster River Cooperative School District superintendent Jim Morse and school board member Tom Newkirk also spoke against the teacher loyalty bill, criticizing its vagueness and saying that decisions about how to teach topics in the classroom should be handled at the local level with school board policies rather than with state law.

“The language is impossibly vague, a pileup of undefined terms,” Newkirk said. “There is a particular danger in this vagueness and the vagueness of this proposed law. Teachers will not know what is prohibited, and what is allowed. And with their teaching credentials at stake, who would blame them if they didn't touch topics like Japanese internment, which would be a disservice to New Hampshire students.”

At the tail end of her testimony Thursday, Given said it’s “demeaning,” as an educator working during the pandemic to have lawmakers question her loyalty to her job and her students.

“Questioning my loyalty is an insult,” Given said. “The idea that I show up to work every day for low wages and in unsafe conditions and I'm not loyal? I would love to know what your definition of loyalty is, if it's not that.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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