Following an email exchange about serving on the school board, my cousin sent me an editorial cartoon from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showing soldiers lined up behind flags for battle — one group behind the American flag and one behind the Confederate flag. There is a man standing in between them saying: “Ok folks, today we are gonna reenact a school board meeting …”
At the time she sent it, my cousin was alluding to divisive school board-level fights over masks and vaccines. But more recently I worry that our country is actually dividing itself.
In Southern New Hampshire, where I live and chair the Derry school board, recent and proposed laws have landed us a lot of national attention. Last spring, the state legislature passed a law as part of the state budget limiting the teaching of so-called divisive concepts. Specifically, it forbids educators from teaching that one group of people is inherently inferior or superior to another, or inherently racist or sexist.
When it passed, I talked to parents who were fearful that teaching about racism, and the free exchange of ideas in the classroom, could be misconstrued as violating the law, which would lead teachers to be wary. The board also faced questions from community members about a social studies teacher who took a grant-paid sabbatical and studied diversity, equity and how bias impacts teaching and learning. Some community members accused her of teaching critical race theory, which was not the case.
These fears were further stoked this fall. In November, the New Hampshire Department of Education launched a website for parents to lodge complaints against teachers who breach the divisive concepts law, and the state chapter of Moms for Liberty announced a $500 reward for the first person to catch a public school teacher violating the law. In response to a question on Twitter about how to contribute, people were told to donate with a note that says, “CRT Bounty,” referring to critical race theory.
I was livid and terrified. I worried that a vague law that seemed aimed at limiting the scope of classroom conversation, followed by a bounty watch, would lead teachers to shy away from difficult discussions about history, racism, and sexism. Most of all, I worried that avoiding those topics could lead our kids, most of whom are very accepting of differences, to learn that certain things shouldn’t be discussed. This troubled me because I see my job as a board member to help kids grow into thoughtful, knowledgeable and well-rounded adults.
I first heard the term critical race theory when it came up in a question during a school board election forum last March. Since then, it has been used at school board meetings as a catchall among those who want to ban references in school to Black Lives Matter, social justice movements, and white privilege. The term has morphed from one used for a framework of legal and academic topics, primarily discussed at the college level, into a rallying cry for those looking to limit discussions about racism.
That transformation was concerning — not because parents don’t have the right to share their views and concerns with their school board, but because the content of their concerns seemed divorced from the reality of the teaching happening in our district. The teacher who took a sabbatical started a culture club and presented with students at a board meeting. The students talked about learning to consider opinions very different then their own and to celebrate differences instead of judging them. To me, this sounded like the kind of learning I wanted to see.
To be clear, our schools in Derry don’t teach critical race theory. What we do teach is history and current events. Some of that might make students uncomfortable, but I trust our educators to navigate that in a way that makes all students feel safe and valued.
I was still mulling what to do with my anger about the so-called bounty when I read yet another piece of proposed state legislation — an amendment to a 1949 law prohibiting teachers from promoting communism. If passed, it would restrict how U.S. history and racism can be discussed in school and says: “No teacher shall advocate any doctrine or theory promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America in New Hampshire public schools.”
That means that within the course of about a year we somehow went from not making students feel racist, which we don’t, to denying truths of our founding. Under this law, how do you discuss the three-fifths compromise, which counted enslaved Black people as equal to three-fifths of a white person? How do you discuss the history of voting rights and voter suppression? How do you discuss recent killings of unarmed Black people? This is our history; this is our present.
As a school board member, I generally stay out of politics. I find it best to stay focused on the work of policy, budgets and overseeing the running of the district, which includes high-level decisions about curriculum. But I am compelled to speak about this. And so are our teachers. Two different teachers unions representing New Hampshire educators filed lawsuits last month alleging the laws are having a chilling effect on classroom discussions.
Everyone is not racist, but racism — interpersonal and systemic — does exist. We need to discuss it and understand it, so it is not our future.
Erika Cohen is in her sixth year on the Derry School Board and currently serves as chair. She has two children, a sixth grader and a ninth grader, in the Derry schools. Erika works as an independent writer, editor, and ghostwriter.