Edelblut’s comment on family values in the classroom sparks a cultural debate
A comment by New Hampshire’s education commissioner, Frank Edelblut, urging teachers not to “undermine” the “sacred trust” of education has provided a new focus in a charged national debate about school curriculum alignment and the place for LGBTQ+ – become topics in the classroom.
The opinion piece, published by Edelblut on April 15, stresses the importance of teachers “respecting the value systems of the families responsible for their upbringing.” It states that “prejudice is beginning to seep into our own institutions” and points to teachings in New Hampshire on gender identity, personal pronouns, anti-racism literature and the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as LGBTQ+ students “who have identified parents as contradicting their values .”
The piece was released along with a 74-page document containing photos and screenshots of classroom materials for New Hampshire classrooms, which Edelblut said had been submitted to the Department of Education by concerned parents.
“Parents of students attending art classes should have a reasonable expectation that they will learn about art,” Edelblut wrote. “You shouldn’t worry, as was the case in another New Hampshire classroom, that the introductory art begins with a lesson in pronouns and links to Black Lives Matters for kids and LGBTQ+ for kids.”
In an interview on Thursday, Edelblut said the presentation of the lesson materials should not imply that the department is actively opposed to the content of the lessons and explained that the department does not seek to “judge” parents’ concerns. Instead, he argued, the examples — with redacted names and identifying details — suggested scenarios in which teachers should seek parental input and listen to concerns.
“These are artifacts from parents who have reached out to this department and have expressed concern that these artifacts – in their opinion – may not support and undermine the value system they are trying to pass on to their children,” said he.
But the Commissioner’s direct reference to reported instances of teachers asking students what their preferred gender pronouns are, and to one instance where a teacher introduced himself to students with “she/they” pronouns, has raised concerns among some LGBTQ+ advocates.
“Gender nondiscrimination was law in New Hampshire and extends specifically to public schools,” said Palana Hunt-Hawkins, an attorney with Trans Action New Hampshire. “So … for example, someone who has a non-binary gender identity is not up for debate for me. You know, it’s just who that person is.”
“Just thinking about him as an education commissioner, it was just amazing to see him throw educators under the bus and not stand behind them strongly,” she added.
Civil rights activists, teachers’ unions and Democrats have also blasted the opinion piece, calling it “manufactured outrage” and “shameful.”
Responding to the criticism, Edelblut said he believed the vast majority of teachers were teaching appropriately and stated that he was supportive of students of all backgrounds and orientations.
“Throughout my tenure here as Commissioner, I have believed in the inherent worth of each and every student and in creating pathways to success – pathways to a bright future – for each and every student,” he said. “And I believe a way forward in this regard, again, is transparent, open communication with families.”
The teaching materials that Edelblut presents in its agenda are wide-ranging. One describes a “perception quiz” in which students are asked multiple-choice questions about racial differences in the United States. Several photos use the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, a book by Ibram X. Kendi aimed at young readers that attempts to outline the history of racism in the United States, which some conservatives oppose have pronounced. One submission includes a photo of a classroom poster about socialism, citing critics of the economic system but then stating that “socialism has another meaning” and going on to say that “most European governments are parliamentary democracies coupled with economic socialism. They are not fascist governments.”
And many of Edelblut’s examples delve into materials related to LGBTQ+ identities in the classroom. In one instance, an art teacher using “she” pronouns asks students to refer to her as Mx. (pronounced “mix”), as opposed to Mr. or Mrs. In another survey, a preschool survey asks students what their preferred learning style is, what they hope to learn from their teacher, what their preferred pronouns and names are, and whether that name can be used in front of other students, when contacting parents and guardians, and with other teachers.
At a presentation before the State Board of Education on April 14, where he went through the files, Edelblut argued that the photos show classroom instruction “which feels like it wasn’t specifically on point” and “may not be age appropriate”. He said much of the materials had been submitted to the department by parents over the past month.
The New Hampshire complaints follow a high-profile fight in Florida over legislation that would ban classroom discussions of sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade and restrict it in other scenarios. Dubbed the “don’t say gay law” by opponents, this law was championed by conservatives to remove what they call sexual “grooming” from classrooms and to ban subjects over which parents have control should have.
In his commentary, Edelblut alluded to this debate and criticized the Walt Disney Company, which has opposed Florida’s new law and has been chastised for its position by conservatives.
“Fortunately, parents can turn off Disney,” Edelblut said. “However, they cannot easily escape the efforts of activist educators who may knowingly dismantle the foundations of a value system they are trying to build.”
When asked if he would support New Hampshire’s copying of Florida’s law, Edelblut declined a direct answer, stating that he was not intimately familiar with the law.
“I haven’t read that law there, so I can’t comment on that,” he said.
Consequences for teachers unclear
Exactly what the New Hampshire Department of Education intends to do with the educational materials presented by Edelblut has not been made clear.
New Hampshire has no law preventing teachers from discussing LGBTQ+ issues in classrooms. Last year lawmakers passed a “freedom from discrimination” bill barring teachers from teachings that suggest that a protected class is inherently oppressive of another class, that one class is inherently superior to another, or that a class should be treated differently from another . However, this law does not specifically address the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues such as gender identities and preferred pronouns. Two teachers’ unions have filed lawsuits in federal court against the Department of Education and other state agencies, arguing that the law is unconstitutionally vague.
Edelblut emphasized in his interview that despite the decision to publish the sample list, the department does not impose penalties on schools and teachers based on teaching materials.
But the department accepts and reviews the complaints and, in some cases, is in touch with the parents who bring them up, Edelblut said. Currently, officials at the ministry are advising parents to take their concerns to the teacher or school administrators before taking it to the ministry, and to take advantage of an existing state law that allows parents to withdraw their children from classes they object to so long they arrange this for alternative classes.
“We just want to make sure they understand what’s available to them to be able to use these (tools),” he said.
Still, Edelblut has left the door open to punishment under the new law if an investigation deems it warranted.
“If during the course of our investigations we find any type of violation of an educator’s code of conduct, then of course we accept that responsibility, but a lot of that responsibility lay with the local school authorities or possibly the human rights commission,” he said.
Objections from teachers unions, ACLU
Edelblut’s comment – the first by the commissioner to directly criticize certain teachings on LGBTQ+ issues – has sparked a backlash from the left in the days since it was published.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, denounced the comment, arguing it was trying to “deny and erase” the existence of students.
“It is shameful that anyone in New Hampshire would attack and silence adolescent identities in the classroom under the guise of ‘values,’ while ignoring the value of acknowledging the unique perspectives of historically marginalized students — and showing basic decency toward them.” , Chaffee said in a statement.
Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association New Hampshire, called the play “manufactured outrage.” Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, castigated Edelblut for what he described as a “focus on pledges of allegiance, restrictions on history teaching, and a general dislike for educators.”
And in a joint letter this week, Democratic members of the New Hampshire House and Senate Education Committees presented the letter as the last straw against noble blood, urging Sununu to replace him.
“…Having read a letter from the Commissioner, published over the weekend, in which he attempts to attack teachers in our communities with a series of conservative slogans and make them the object of suspicion and distrust, we feel that an important line has been broken was by this commissioner,” the letter reads. “As a result, we no longer have confidence in this Education Commissioner and his ability to lead the Department of Education.”
For his part, Edelblut says the comment was only intended to encourage an open dialogue between teachers and disgruntled parents — not to choose a side in these debates.
“The purpose is not to judge the incoming artifacts. The purpose is to say, ‘We have to support our families,'” he said.
But for Hunt-Hawkins, a trans woman, the very existence of class debates about family values in the classroom touches a deeper concern.
“I think in the last few years there’s been a real merging of gender identity and sexuality, where people who assume anything outside of heterosexuality are immediately seen as ‘sexual’ and ‘too sexual,'” she said. “And it’s just that that’s just a code word for ‘outside of heterosexual sexuality.'”
This story was originally published by New Hampshire Bulletin.