The N.H. Statehouse

Chris Barry is currently teaching “Night” by Elie Wiesel, an autobiographical account of Holocaust survival, in his freshman English class at Keene High School.

The book, Barry said, presents an essential question for his students: How do we confront history and literature that makes us uncomfortable?

“And I don’t give the answer,” Barry said. “The students have to come up with those answers.”

But proposed legislation now before the N.H. Legislature has Barry, and other local educators, worried it would curb their ability to approach these sorts of difficult topics, along with others including racism and sexism, with their students. The bill, which started as House Bill 544 but has since been incorporated into the House’s state budget proposal, would cut off state funding from any business, school or organization that spreads “divisive concepts” about these topics.

“I worry that a bill like this will make it more difficult to teach, to help students come to their own answers,” Barry said. “Sometimes history and literature make us uncomfortable. Sometimes that’s what we need to learn.”

The legislation, introduced by a trio of Republicans, seeks to ban the propagation of ideas including that the state of New Hampshire or the U.S. is fundamentally racist or sexist, that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist” and that anyone should feel guilt or any other type of psychological distress due to his or her race or sex. The bill would restrict spreading these “divisive concepts” in public schools, and any businesses or organizations that get money from the state.

According to reporting from the Concord Monitor, proponents of the bill who spoke during a February hearing before the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee expressed concern over the teaching of critical race theory. This scholarly framework approaches the study of the United States through a lens of race and power, and holds that systemic racism is a part of American culture.

Many who spoke in favor of the bill during that February hearing called critical race theory “indoctrination,” the Monitor reported. Richard Merkt, chairman of the Cheshire County Republican Committee, said he shares those concerns, and supports the bill.

“Some want to misuse public schools to indoctrinate children, rather than educate them,” Merkt, a Westmoreland resident who ran unsuccessfully for the N.H. House last year, said in an email. “This is what is behind Critical Race Theory.”

Expression of this idea is protected as free speech, Merkt added, but “promotion of this ideology with public funds and indoctrination of schoolchildren are not activities protected under the First Amendment.”

But Sean O’Mara, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at Keene Middle School, said this is simply not happening in local schools.

“This bill seems to be born out of political talking points and conspiracy theories without much discussion with teachers,” said O’Mara, who is in his 19th year at the school. “... The bill itself gives the impression that somehow there’s racial scapegoating taking place in the schools, or students are being made to feel bad because of their racial identity. And in my experience as a teacher, I have not ever seen that.”

Barry, the Keene High English teacher, agrees. He likened the avoidance of difficult topics like racism and sexism in history and English classes to ignoring students’ questions on a challenging math problem.

“Why wouldn’t we explore that as it connects to the class?” Barry said. “And to be worried about indoctrination is preposterous. What’s happening in, at least my classroom, is the raising of questions, the exploring of ideas, and letting students lead the discussion and guide where it goes. That’s what happening.”

Mark Haley, an 8th grade English teacher at Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School, added that he believes the bill represents a legislative overreach, and that curriculum decisions should be made at the local level.

“That’s up to the districts, that’s up to the individual teachers and principals, in conversation with the families,” said Haley, who also serves as president of the Jaffrey-Rindge Education Association. “But that’s not a State House issue.”

In addition to these local concerns, the bill has drawn widespread criticism from educators and businesses statewide. Roughly 250 businesses and organizations throughout the state have signed onto a letter from New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility opposing the legislation as “antithetical” to Granite State values like diversity and inclusion.

More than a dozen local businesses and groups, including C&S Wholesale Grocers, Inc., Savings Bank of Walpole and the Monadnock Food Co-op have signed the letter, which argues the proposal would “have a chilling impact on our workplaces and on the business climate in New Hampshire.”

“We understand the language of H.B. 544 included in the budget amendment is intended to restrict business from offering [diversity, equity and inclusion] training to employees as they deem appropriate,” Michael Faber, the general manager of the Monadnock Food Co-op, said in a written statement. “We believe diverse, inclusive and welcoming work environments support the health of our employees and the greater community and foster wellbeing for all.”

The Durham-based Oyster River School District has also signed onto the letter, while the school boards in Concord and the Hanover-based N.H. School Administrative Unit 70 have passed resolutions opposing the bill, according to N.H. Public Radio.

Locally, both the Keene Board of Education and Monadnock Regional School Board are scheduled to discuss the legislation during their meetings Tuesday, their chairmen said this week. George Downing, chairman of the Keene school board, said he does not know whether the group will take any action to condemn the proposal, but called it “a pretty frightening bill, as presented.”

“It’s really chilling, I think, first of all, to limit free speech, but especially to limit free speech in an educational setting,” Downing said.

Backers of the bill have noted that it would not “prohibit discussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction,” divisive concepts on race and sex “in an objective manner and without endorsement.” But educators like Barry, the Keene High teacher, say they still worry that the bill, if passed, would quash students’ natural curiosity by making teachers hesitant to tackle these tough topics.

Gov. Chris Sununu has said he does not support the bill, citing free speech concerns, according to NHPR.

Ultimately, Haley, the Jaffrey-Rindge teacher, said educators need to be able to discuss challenging topics with their students in order to confront them beyond the classroom.

“Teachers need to teach what’s going on in our society. Racism, sexism, these things are part of our society, and they have been from the start,” he said. “If we have a hope of righting those societal wrongs, we have to learn from them.”

Jack Rooney can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1404, or jrooney@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @RooneyReports.