Sunday, March 5, 2023

NH: Working To Further Silence Teachers

New Hampshire's current leaders seem more and more intent on whacking teachers into submission. We've seen lots of versions of teacher gag laws in this country, but New Hampshire has managed to come up with a whole new ugly wrinkle. "Live free or die" is now "shut up or else."

In 2021, Rep. Glenn Cordelli (R-Carroll) co-sponsored HB 544, one of the many various "divisive concepts" gag bills proposed on the wave of critical race theory panic. The “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education” language was fuzzy, trying to say that you can't teach critical race theory, but you can teach about things like racism, but only if you don't take a stand on it, so, maybe, "teach about racism, but don't say it's wrong." 

Of course, most of these bills were vague (since nobody who proposed them really seemed to understand what CRT is, how could they not be) which was a feature, not a bug, since that vagueness insured that the bills would have a chilling effect.

Much like their voucher bill, HB 544 sparked enough opposition that New Hampshire’s GOP-controlled legislature inserted its “anti” language into this year’s budget as the “Right to Freedom From Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education.” The Department of Education has offered some clarification, but it focuses on the “discrimination” portion of the law, not the “divisive concepts” portion. And if the department’s guidance really is the whole story, the “anti-critical race theory” law doesn’t actually prohibit critical race theory at all. After Governor Chris Sununu signed the bill into law, more than half of his diversity council quit.

But apparently some folks were concerned that the law by itself would not be chilling enough, teachers who violate the law can be brought before state authorities and lose their license if it is found they have “discriminated against an individual or identified group.” Their school can be sued, and the state attorney general could take action. 

Not chilling enough? To further up the ante, the state set up a website to let parents and students to turn in teachers that they believe have violated the law. Students and parents may fill out this form, a questionnaire that can be submitted to the state. There’s a space to describe “what action was taken against you that you believe to be discriminatory” which can include any differentiation in privileges, discipline, harassment, or retaliation.

And just to sweeten the pot, New Hampshire's Moms for Liberty offered a bounty for turning a teacher in. The group tweeted “We’ve got $500 for the person that first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law. Students, parents, teachers, school staff...We want to know! We will pledge anonymity if you want.” End someone’s career, and collect a bounty. (The term “bounty” is not hyperbole; in response to a question about how to contribute, Moms for Liberty NH suggested to PayPal them and mark “CRT Bounty” in the notes.) This courtesy of Rachel Goldsmith, the M4L chief who is also part of the Free State Project, once serving as executive director.

The state provided little clear guidance, but plenty of folks on the right felt emboldened to go after their local schools. 

Apparently, none of this was enough for some folks, starting with Rep. Cordelli.

“I had a couple of incidents related to me where the Department was trying to get information from schools and in a couple of cases they were met with resistance from the administration. I felt this would help (Commissioner Edelblut) in cases of substantial incidents in schools that deserve immediate follow-up,” Cordelli said.

Cordelli said the Department of Education was having trouble getting cases referred to the Human Rights Commission with “roadblocks at the Attorney General’s Office.” Since the public hearing on the original bill “they have been more cooperative,” Cordelli said.

One way to interpret this might be to conclude that the various "substantial incidents" turned out to be giant nothing burgers. But what Cordelli wants is a "little push to get things moving." Ot, in other words, we are going to by God find a way to get some teachers and schools charged with something by somebody.

Rep. Cordelli has a new bill--HB 533--that a would allow the Department of Education to bring a complaint "on behalf of" any aggrieved persons, And that's not the worst of it.

In an amendment so fresh that it's not on the legiscan site yet, Cordelli proposes to give the Education Commissioner subpoena power in cases of educator misconduct. If someone in the state capitol decides you've been naughty, the education chief can drag you there to face a hearing on your alleged naughtiness. This is doubly scary because Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is a home-schooling, Libertarian-loving businessman whose main knowledge of education is about how to make political hay from it. 

If New Hampshire's GOP has learned anything, it is that the more time you give the public to weigh in on these kinds of bills, the more grief they give you. So even though the ink is not yet dry on the amendment, the amended version of HB 533 will be heard Wednesday, March 8th, at 9 A.M.

The state teachers union president says the amendment is concerning, but they'll wait and see what the reasoning is, which I'm thinking is pretty generous. Meanwhile, the “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education” is the subject of a lawsuit that the court has just allowed to move forward after a state motion to dismiss the lawsuit failed. 

Let's just hope this newest scare tactic doesn't inspire other folks across the country. 

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