There’s been a neatness to the culture wars over education.
This has been more or less the framework on the ground – and sometimes in the courtroom – as we see fights at BOE meetings over books, gay students, gender identification and mental health counseling.
It is the Democratic Murphy Administration, after all, that sued four districts – Hanover Township and three in Monmouth County – over proposed policies governing the treatment of gay and transgender students.
But a few days ago, things became a bit confusing.
The top two Democrats in the Legislature – Senate President Nicholas Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin – issued a statement that seemed to support the conservative Republican position regarding recent action by the state Board of Education in regard to “equality” and “equity.”
Here it is:
“It is unfortunate that the State Board of Education doesn’t coordinate with policymakers before they take actions that may affect school districts throughout our state. We expected better communication with them. We believe that families should have a voice in what is taught to their children, and as long as we have a say over the matter, they will continue to. And as always, all children deserve subject matter that is age appropriate, posted clearly and transparently for families to review, and free from politics.
“We want to be clear: Though the State Board of Education sets guidelines on curriculum, it is our local communities through their elected boards of education that decide on the final lesson plans. We are proud to have a robust local process, led by families in their districts, as such a critical part of our public education in New Jersey.”
That statement may be non-controversial in a vacuum. But we are not in a vacuum.
The reference to parents’ rights and “age appropriate” subject matter sounds benign,but is very much part of today’s Republican talking points.
What the statement does not include is the other side of the debate. That would be support for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, a curriculum created by educators and opposition to censoring books.
Pushback to Scutari and Coughlin is coming from the New Jersey Public Education Coalition, which was formed to combat “right wing extremism” in public schools.
Here is a letter sent to the two lawmakers by Mike Gottesman, the coalition founder, and Amy Ipp, a retired school librarian in Millburn. After expressing disappointment with the statement, the writers continue:
“As societies continue to grow and change, school districts must also respond to those changes to meet the needs of each and every student. This includes students whose needs may not have been met because of their gender identity, or special circumstances.
“The State Board had numerous meetings with public and school district input and scholarly research to arrive at the new policy. Your statement implies otherwise.
“Replacing the word equity for equality recognizes that not all of us start out with the same set of advantages or educational needs. It helps protect all of the children in our care and maximizes the educational environment. An “equitable education” is designed to meet the particular needs of every student so that each will have the same opportunity for success upon graduation. Since not every student comes to the educational table with an “equal” set of circumstances, providing them with mere “equality” in education is insufficient.
“New Jersey has one of the top education systems in the country because we provide equity in education. That is why thousands of families flock to New Jersey and stimulate growth in our economy. This will continue to grow as other states make it inhospitable and hostile for their childrens’ needs.
“It is disingenuous to suggest that the Board did not coordinate with school districts, that parents have no voice, or to state that lessons and content are not age appropriate. There is no evidence of this. In fact, no less than 800 emails and comments from parents and others were submitted to the Board in advance of their August 2nd meeting.
“Additionally, since the 1980’s parents have always had the right to opt out of Health and Physical Education lessons they do not want their children to participate in for their personal “moral” reasons. School districts will continue to have wide latitude in structuring their lessons.
As we witness the culture wars across the nation there are groups of parents under the rallying cry of “parental rights” who seek to deny accurate information to children who are not their own. These groups that state that their religious freedom is being denied in the public school setting are simply wrong. Religious freedom is fully protected in the United States.
“While we understand this is an election year your statement was simply not necessary and gives credence to that loud minority that would deny children a safe school environment and education that reflects today’s society.
“Further, pandering to these groups merely undercuts the quality of the New Jersey public educational system while attempting to garner the votes of a group of people who will not vote Democratic anyway. They are clearly aligned with and supported by the NJGOP who, some two weeks ago, threw their support behind the “parental rights” movement. These groups in New Jersey are also backed by national right wing groups as has been substantially documented.
“We do not want to go the way of Florida.”
So, what’s driving Scutari and Coughlin?
Some observers have noted that the closeness of the 2021 gubernatorial election and the Dems losing a few seats in the Legislature has the majority party nervous.
Perhaps? But as the above letter notes, catering to conservatives over education policy would be foolish politics.
It is also true that Democrats in the Legislature traditionally have not been nearly as left wing as Republicans claim.
Keep in mind that New Jersey Democrats refused to institute marriage equality; the courts had to do that.
More recently, Democrats declined to legalize recreational marijuana, despite polls showing strong support for it. That took a referendum.
Still, it is odd that when Scutari and Coughlin decided to wade into today’s education debate, they dove in from the right.