‘Divisive concepts’ law impeding efforts to recruit and retain teachers, DEIJ directors tell lawmakers; hearing on repeal scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 12

DEIJ directors from around the state present to a legislative committee studying teacher recruitment and retention in November 2022. 

A 2021 law that restricts what teachers can say about racism, sexism, and other sensitive topics is making it harder to attract and retain new teachers – particularly teachers of color – in New Hampshire, a group of DEIJ (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice) directors recently told lawmakers

“Speaking for myself personally, it doesn’t feel like New Hampshire wants me. It doesn’t feel like I belong here,” Tina Philibotte, Chief Equity Officer for the Manchester School District, told the Committee to Study New Hampshire Teacher Shortages and Recruitment Incentives in November. “The law makes it really hard, not just for educators of color, but for any educator, to stay in this work.” 

The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 12, on a new bill that would repeal the “divisive concepts” law and clarify that the state could not ban teachers or other school staff from teaching about current events, history, or people’s lived experiences or punish them for doing so. Passed as part of the state budget in 2021 despite strong public opposition, the law has reportedly had a chilling effect on classrooms. And that negative atmosphere has created additional challenges in recruiting and retaining teachers – a key priority for NH education leaders and lawmakers.

“For teachers, it’s ‘if I make a mistake, I risk losing my teaching license,’ ” Philibotte told the Committee, which was formed during the 2022 legislative session in response to widespread teacher and staff shortages in the state. “ ‘If something happens in the school, am I safe to talk to my students about what happened? Will I lose my job? Do I do what’s best for the student in front of me, or do I keep my home and provide for my family?’ ”

Diversifying the Teaching Profession

Philibotte was one of three DEIJ directors to present to the Committee to Study New Hampshire Teacher Shortages and Recruitment Incentives, sharing experiences and expertise on the importance of diversity and equity in strengthening the teaching profession in the state. 

Growing up in Manchester, Philibotte was the only Korean student in her school, she told the Committee. Today, 48% of Manchester’s students are students of color. “It’s the Manchester I wish it was when I was a kid,” she said. Yet, fewer than 6% of the full-time teaching staff in Manchester are people of color, and New Hampshire is among the states with the smallest proportion of educators of color in the classroom. 

Research indicates that a racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse educator workforce increases student success. For students of color, having just one teacher of color between kindergarten and third grade can boost academic achievement, high school graduation rates, and college enrollment rates, according to research by the Great Schools Partnership. 

Even schools that appear relatively homogeneous need to know how to address issues of race and create welcoming environments for all students and teachers, Rachel Blansett, DEIJ Coordinator for the Oyster River School District, told the Committee. While her district has adequate resources to recruit new teachers and staff, “The retention piece is where it grows more challenging,” she said. “Even if people are well-meaning and well-intentioned, the actual environment that people have to navigate can be very challenging. … It’s kind of a slow burn out for teachers (of color). They’re not seeing themselves reflected.” 

Andres Mejia, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Justice for SAU 16, added that these challenges extend beyond the school walls. “I think when it comes to recruitment of educators of color, it’s more than just the job, it’s the communities that people are moving into,” Mejia said. Districts are trying to get creative in supporting educators with diverse backgrounds, he said. 

Providing space to talk about race and equity is also critically important, the DEIJ directors said – but these conversations can’t happen in an atmosphere of fear. It was just as the first DEIJ directors in the state were beginning their work that the ‘divisive concepts’ law began to take shape, Philibotte said. 

“For me, it feels clear that folks don’t want us to have those conversations,” she said. 

About the ‘Divisive Concepts’ Law

Hotly debated during the 2021 legislative session, the “divisive concepts” law states that K-12 public schools and public workplaces can’t teach or offer training on certain topics pertaining to race and gender; specifically, that one race or gender is inherently superior to another, or that “by virtue of his or her race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others.”

In November 2021, the New Hampshire Department of Education (NHED) launched a web page where community members could report teachers over concerns related to the law, formally known as the Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education. The NH chapter of Moms for Liberty responded by offering a $500 reward to the first person to catch a teacher violating the law. As of September 2022, no educators have been punished, or even investigated, according to a response to a Right to Know request submitted by the Granite State News Collaborative.

Numerous individuals and groups have raised concerns about the law and its effects, and oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the law were heard in U.S. District Court in Concord last fall. A bill that would have repealed the law was introduced during the 2022 legislative session but failed to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. 

HB 61, the current attempt to repeal the law, states that “that no education law of this state shall be construed to bar any school employee from teaching the historical or current experiences of any group that is protected from discrimination.  The bill also repeals provisions of the law relating to the right to freedom from discrimination in public workplaces and education.”

The public hearing will be held on Thursday, January 12, at 9:30 a.m. in Representative’s Hall, which is in the State House. The House will also accept written testimony by email. Committee members can be emailed directly at HouseEducationCommittee@leg.state.nh.us or through the online portal, here.  

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