More than 80 people turned out Saturday afternoon in Keene to voice concern over the state of public education amid a slew of legislative initiatives they say have restricted teachers’ ability to teach and aim to draw resources away from public schools.
Organized by the Cheshire County Democrats, the attendees of the rally in Central Square hoisted signs with messages like “Democrats working for the common good,” “Stop school vouchers” and “Support our teachers!”
“There has been much legislation that has been trying to cripple the public school system,” said Mohammad Saleh, chair of the county Democrats, “trying to take away money with the voucher system and trying to put restrictions on teachers.”
In particular, the event took aim at the recently enacted Education Freedom Account program and the so-called “divisive concepts” law, as well as House Bill 1671, which the N.H. House Education Committee is scheduled to vote on this Monday.
The freedom account program allows families to spend state education funds outside the public school system, including on private or charter school tuition. The “divisive concepts” law restricts certain kinds of teaching on racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.
Meanwhile, HB 1671 would remove subjects such as world languages, computer science, art, health and physical education from the state’s definition of an adequate public education, leaving only English, math, science and social studies in that category.
“Schools do not have to offer [those subjects] anymore, that’s what that bill says,” Susan Hay, a member of the Cheshire County Democrats, said. “What a travesty. No band, no art, no foreign languages. What kind of school system is that, and why are they doing it?”
Heather Gigliello, a doctoral student at Plymouth State University who spoke at the rally Saturday, shared findings from a qualitative study she did for her dissertation on how the divisive-concepts bill has affected high-school English teachers in New Hampshire.
Gigliello said she interviewed 18 high-school English teachers from 18 different school districts in the state for her study. Of those 18, 12 have changed their curriculum in response to the law, she said.
One teacher removed “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi from the curriculum, another chose not to show a video of the 2017 Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., in a lesson on antisemitism, and one teacher chose not to introduce the “Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, Gigliello said.
“A teacher from the southwestern part of the state explained that she awkwardly changed the subject when a student mentioned that white people were racist in the book ‘Beloved’,” Gigliello said, referencing another book by Morrison, a Black author.
Keene High School teacher Tina McLaughlin said she turned out to Saturday’s rally because she has been fighting the divisive-concepts bill since before it was enacted last summer.
McLaughlin, who teaches 9th- and 12th-graders, including a class called Women’s Literature, said sexism and racism are common topics in literature that teachers now have to tiptoe around.
“I have to consider every book that I add to the curriculum, or books that we currently have,” she said. “How we talk about the discussions of racism and sexism ... trying to make that mesh with what divisive concepts is doing is sometimes difficult.”
McLaughlin said that HB 1671 is the latest bill that could have a major impact on public school teachers.
“This new bill is what is on the forefront right now,” she said. “Cutting music programs, cutting art, cutting health, cutting PE, digital literacy — it would be a horrible thing to our schools if that happened.”