AFT-NH Testimony on Repeal of the Divisive Concepts Law

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AFT-NH Testimony on HB 61

From Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH

Thank you, Chairperson Ladd and Members of the House Education Committee, for listening to my testimony today,

My name is Debrah Howes. I am the president of the American Federation of Teachers-NH.  

AFT-NH represents 4,000 teachers, paraeducators and school support staff, public service employees and higher education faculty across New Hampshire.

I am here today to speak wholeheartedly in favor of HB61 – Relative to Teaching on Discrimination in the Public Schools and in Public Workplaces. Make no mistake. My members enthusiastically support this legislation to repeal the so-called “Divisive Concepts” law passed in 2021.

This so-called “Divisive Concepts” law is unconstitutional; politically motivated and unfair to students who should be learning historical facts, not censored or sugar-coated history. It is intimidating and punitive to teachers who have an obligation to teach honest history. It should never have been, nor should ever be, a law in New Hampshire.

This law is in direct conflict with a long-standing state law mandating that public school curriculum include the teaching of accurate, honest history and social studies. And to make it worse, the so-called “Divisive Concepts” law is written in such an ambiguous way that it is nearly impossible for teachers to follow it, making them highly susceptible to arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.

We now have history and social studies teachers who find themselves in one of two camps—either they struggle about whether to dance around certain unpleasant but actual historical or current events in order to avoid career-ending discipline… or they refuse to be intimidated by this law and teach a subject exactly as it should be taught—with the truth bared. Some say they’d quit before being forced to avoid certain topics.

The law this bill seeks to repeal does its work of silencing appropriate and necessary classroom conversations because it never clearly explains exactly what is allowed and what is not. It threatens punishment up to and including the loss of teaching credentials and career if someone subjectively feels you have somehow violated the boundaries of law. We have had a year and a half to see how this works in schools and how it robs our public-school students of the robust education they deserve.

  • Since the passage of the so-called “Divisive Concepts” law some middle school teachers are holding back from teaching American classics such as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Even though the book should be allowed under the law, discussion of the themes dealing with racism might be misperceived by a student, or by an adult hearing secondhand about classroom discussion and drawing conclusions. The danger to the teacher’s livelihood is real if a complaint is made. The students lose out on a classic of American literature and the chance to grapple with its important themes.
  • A dedicated middle school art teacher worked every semester to build a respectful, welcoming classroom community. To get to know the students, the teacher allows them to write their names down and what they prefer to be called, if they choose. There is nothing discriminatory in this.  A parent complained to the Commissioner of Education, who contacted the local school district, insisting on an investigation. The teacher was investigated and absolutely no violation of the so-called “Divisive Concepts” law was found. However, because of the witch-hunt atmosphere this created, the teacher left this district. The students have lost out on a talented, dedicated art teacher.
  • An AP History teacher was working with her students on their final review before the AP test. Her class got interrupted because she was called to the office. Why? School administration had been told by someone who wasn’t in her class that she taught something that violated the so-called “Divisive Concepts” law. She asked to at least be able to finish the AP test review with her students before she reported to the office to discuss the report. She was not allowed to do that. She felt confident in the lessons she had taught, which followed the adopted curriculum and were solid, honest, well-resourced history. The report was investigated and deemed unfounded. The investigation caused stress for the teacher. It has left an impact on her teammate, who is not as confident. It’s the students who lose the most from this.  
  • Here’s what New Hampshire kids need and what parents want: a high-quality public education that doesn’t leave out facts because they may be embarrassing or uncomfortable. Teachers must be able to conduct honest discussions with their students so they can later make judgments on their own once they know the facts.
  • Instead of unconstitutionally restricting what teachers can teach and students should learn, we should be focusing on providing our kids and teachers with the resources and supports they need. That would be so much more productive, and I would be glad to work with the committee on this.
  • I urge you to repeal the so-called Divisive Concepts law and let’s get on with the business of making our public schools the best they can be for our kids. I urge you to vote this bill Ought to Pass on HB 61!

Sincerely,

Debrah Howes,

President, AFT-NH