Parents’ rights a growing divide in New Hampshire school districts

By NINA MOSKE

Monitor staff

Published: 08-16-2023 10:35 AM

Paul Terry rose from his seat, accepted a microphone and fixed his eyes on Vivek Ramaswamy, who stood at the front of a small room, awaiting his question.

Terry, a state representative who cosponsored the failed “Parental Bill of Rights” in the New Hampshire House of Representatives earlier this year, was a fan of the Republican presidential candidate. When he learned that Ramaswamy was holding a “Parental Rights Town Hall” in Alton in June, he was eager to attend.

After clearing his throat, Terry began by referencing his work on the parental rights bill, which drew applause from the crowd. He explained that the bill had failed because of “defecting Republicans” and questioned how Ramaswamy would address their “warped thinking.”

Among other things, the bill would have required schools to disclose to parents if their children wanted to use pronouns different than their birth gender.

“We have people who are in our own party who are saying that kids need to be protected from their parents,” Terry said. “That teachers and other school employees should not have to disclose anything that they don’t want to disclose to parents who inquire about the education of their children and what kind of activities they’re involved in and what pronouns they wish to be used by and how they’re dressing and what name they may be using in school.”

Standing before a sign that read “TRUTH,” Ramaswamy thanked Terry for his “courageous” work in the legislature. He agreed that teachers feed students “woke” information on race, gender, sexuality and climate and said that government should create “no guardrails or limitations on what parents get to know about what’s happening in those public schools.”

Parent involvement

Ramaswamy’s event underscored the growing push for increased parental rights in schools across the country and in New Hampshire.

“I like to say, ‘We need to put ‘parent’ back in ‘transparency,’ ” New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut said last week in a radio interview with Jack Heath.

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On the local level, some parents have grown to distrust the public school system, thinking teachers and administrators are indoctrinating students with liberal bias and withholding information from parents. In some schools parents have challenged the content of books, questioned policies relating to LGBTQ+ students and, on the state level, created an avenue to report teachers to the state who are believed to be delivering biased lessons on history, race, gender and sexuality.

Edelblut said parents aren’t attacking public schools as much as they are concerned students aren’t given strong reading and math skills to prepare them for the future. Remote learning during COVID gave parents direct insight into the amount of information being delivered.

“They saw the amount and ground that was covered, how much education was taking place, and they were like, ‘That’s all that’s happening. We thought more was getting done in that period of time,’ ” Edelblut said.

In New Hampshire, the fight for parents’ rights has found a home on the floor of the State House, among Terry and his colleagues.

In 2022, Terry sponsored HB1431, a parental bill of rights modeled after a similar law that passed in Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis. The bill outlined options for parents to withdraw their children from certain instruction and guaranteed access to school curriculum. An amendment also required that schools notify parents anytime an action was taken regarding a student’s gender expression or identity. When the House rejected the bill in May 2022, Terry remained optimistic.

The following year, House Speaker Sherman Packard sponsored a similar bill, HB10, with Terry as a cosponsor. Hearings in March and April for the House bill and a similar Senate bill were lively, with crowds of opponents gathering outside of the State House clutching signs that read “Trans Rights are Human Rights” and “ ‘Live Free’ Applies to Everyone!” Despite a Republican majority, the House tabled HB10 and rejected subsequent amendments.

Gazing out a window of the McDonald’s in Alton last month, Terry reflected on HB10. He said he thinks parental rights are still relevant and expects legislative action on the issue in future sessions.

“At the heart of the Parents’ Bill of Rights, for me and for many others, is the belief that there is an implied trust relationship between parents and teachers,” said Terry. “In other words, these are not your kids; they’re my kids.”

Terry has five grandchildren and three grown children who went to school outside of New Hampshire.

“There’s stuff going on in the classrooms that we’re not being told about,” he said. “A teacher may be encouraging students to explore their gender identities when that has nothing to do with mathematics, has nothing to do with English. There’s something effectively nefarious that’s going on here.”

He scoffed at the argument that students should feel safe to explore their gender identities at school.

“A school and parents should work cooperatively to deal with issues that, at this point, we might call … confusion,” he said. “How do we help this student come to a better understanding of who he or she is?”

Distrust in Weare

Most school officials in the area say they try to communicate openly with parents and the community, but that doesn’t always prevent distrust. Some parents have turned to the state’s Right to Know Law, which allows citizens to access information from public agencies.

In Weare, one woman filed dozens of records requests with her local school district, probing for information on “obscene” book displays, course materials, finances and more, the Monitor learned.

Toni Parker, who does not have a child in the Weare school system, emailed requests to the district’s superintendent, Jacqueline Coe, numerous times a month over the past two years. Parker declined to comment for this story, citing a lack of trust in the media.

In September 2022, Parker questioned the district’s purchase of a voting machine from Dominion, a company accused of orchestrating fraud in the 2020 election.

In January 2023, Parker became concerned about sexual content available to students in school.

“It has come to my attention that our Weare, N.H. Middle School Library may have LBGTQ+ obscene materials such as pornography in books that are available to our students,” she wrote. “Including, the comprehensive sex Ed. Also, is there a flex block in our schools available for LBGTQ which is sexual content?”

Days later, she followed up.

“Do you people really believe this is something school officials should be influencing? This is a parent/family issue,” she wrote. “We are talking about school children ages 4-8 & age 9-13….! I am requesting the schools protocol in notifying parents of any pornographic and obscene; grooming; socialism materials available and or being taught to ‘THEIR’ children.”

When Parker learned that eighth grade students read excerpts from a book on racism and anti-racism, she requested “a copy of every single teachers syllabus pre approved by SAU24” and “specific names and authors of every single book pre approved by SAU24.”

Coe explained that the district does not pre-approve books used in classes.

“WHAT MECHANISM IS IN PLACE FOR THE SAU TO KNOW WHAT IS BEING TAUGHT TO THESE STUDENTS? WHO WOULD HAVE THIS INFORMATION THEN?” Parker replied.

Peppered throughout her emails are pointed references to the power dynamic at play. In April, she wrote, “As a gentle reminder… The Teachers & School Staff is accountable to the Superintendent. The Superintendent is accountable to the School Board (s). The School Board (s) is accountable to the People.”

Often broad, Parker’s requests exhausted Coe.

“What is problematic is it feels like there’s a weaponization of the Right to Know,” Coe said in an interview.

“I get the sense that she thinks that me, representing SAU 24 and particularly the Weare school district, are hurting children,” she said. “It just seems like somebody is trying to make my life difficult.”

Coe was careful to emphasize her belief in transparency from schools.

“Parents know their children best, and I firmly believe that,” she said.

Edelblut defended parents.

“They’re not trying to be critical, they’re saying we have to be more transparent about it and understand what’s going on in that school building,” he said. “It can’t be a black box to us. We as parents, who have ultimate responsibility for our children, our children’s education, have visibility into that.”

Terry thinks that legislation outlining parents’ rights would encourage that transparency and prevent further abuses of RSA 91-A.

“If you have one party who defines what the relationship is, then you don’t have trust,” he said, describing the power he thinks schools have over families. “That breeds suspicion, and when you have suspicion you start getting things like FOIAs and 91-As.”

Schools should have nothing to hide, he said.

“We wanted parents to be aware of what their rights were,” he added, “because we believe philosophically in something that we have recognized as human beings for millennia, and that is that parents have a right to know.”

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