AFT-NH Testimony on HB 533
From Debrah Howes, President AFT-NH
To the NH House Judiciary Committee:
Thank you, Chair Lynn and Members of the House Judiciary Committee, for hearing my testimony today. I am honored to have the chance to address you 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 writing today in opposition to HB533, relative to public school human rights complaints.
Two years ago, in the budget, the House passed the so-called “divisive concepts” law. This law, aimed at preventing teachers from teaching robust and honest history curriculum, has now been in place for nearly two years. After the law passed, guidance was put out that said we could still teach about discrimination as a “historical concept” as part of a larger course of history. There was no clear guidance on how to make connections between historical events and their consequences through time, a part of bringing context to historical facts and an important piece of the education process. The law said that a person who felt an educator had taught, or even implied, a so-called “divisive concept” deliberately or even unknowingly, could file a complaint through the NH Commission on Human Rights or with the Department of Justice. And the consequences of being found guilty of violating this law comes with the penalty that could include losing your teaching license and therefore your job. You could lose your job for actually just doing your job! If that wasn’t enough of a chilling effect on teachers and school staff, an outside right-wing group put an actual bounty on teachers and the Department of Education put a complaint form on the front page of its website to help parents file complaints.
Despite the clear goal of punishing teachers for teaching honest history and robust, comprehensive humanities and arts, the Human Rights Commission has not charged one teacher with breaking the so-called “divisive concepts” law in the nearly two years it has been in place. Clearly, the sponsor of HB 533 and the commissioner of education are not satisfied with this and now are looking for additional ways for complaints to be filed. I want to be clear here that just because no teachers have been charged, a number of teachers have been wrongly accused. They have faced internal investigations in their districts, sometimes with encouragement of the commissioner of education. Some teachers have faced serious stress, disruption and pressure as they have had their motivations questions for teaching district approved curriculum and following district policies, some have even left the profession. This law weighs heavily upon our teachers, staff and students by raising questions inside of schools of what they can teach and what they can learn, even what they can say, without being subject of an investigation.
The Department of Education setting itself up as a clearing house of complaints has two main problems. First, there is a reason complaints are submitted by the supposed aggrieved party and not by a third party. The person filing the complaint has all of the details of the complaint and is not getting information second hand. If the DOE is filing the complaint that they heard, at best, second hand, they stand a greater chance of not knowing the whole story or missing important information. To our knowledge no other complaints are allowed to be filed second hand to the Human Rights Commission.
The second main problem is this law sets up the DOE to be in constant confrontation with the teachers it oversees. The same Department which is supposed to help oversee the professional growth and development of the state’s teaching staff should not also constantly be seen as a feared adversary. New Hampshire already has a teacher shortage; teachers are already suffering burnout in record numbers and this bill would do nothing but exasperate that problem.
We ask you to find HB533 Inexpedient to Legislate and thank you for your time.