CONCORD — New Hampshire had two major moves for public schools Thursday as Gov. Chris Sununu signed a landmark anti-discrimination law while an administrative rules panel objected to the Learn Everywhere plan of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
The developments reveal how bipartisan consensus and vocal political dissent can be both be on display in the same day.
The two-term Republican chief executive Sununu made a reality legislation creating a cause of action for students who are victims of discrimination based on age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, color, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, or national origin.
“SB 263 continues our work to ensure that New Hampshire is a place where every person, regardless of their background, has an equal and full opportunity to pursue their dreams and to make a better life for themselves and their families. By signing this bill, we are extending anti-discrimination protections, which already exist under current law, to students in public schools. Our children are the future of this state, and they deserve nothing less than the same protections provided to adults in housing, employment, and public accommodations,” Sununu said in a statement.
Rogers Johnson is president of the Seacoast NAACP and chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion that recommended this change.
“This legislation, now law, was a direct response to concerns raised by Granite Staters. The fact that the legislation was first recommended in December and is already now law is a credit to our state’s true commitment to improving diversity and inclusion,” Johnson said.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire said the new law closes a gap that had denied students non-discrimination protections that others had.
Dottie Morris, associate vice president for diversity and inclusion at Keene State College said the council learned this was not simply an academic debate.
“Over the past year and a half, the Governor’s Advisory Council heard numerous stories about young people facing discrimination in our schools. While we have much work to do, this bill is a critical step to ending discrimination and making our schools and communities welcoming to all,” Morris said.
Sen. Tom Sherman, D-Rye, was the bill’s prime author.
“Today’s adoption of SB 263 is a huge step forward for equal rights in New Hampshire public schools that will ensure our schools are a safe and inclusive environment for all and gives students the protections they need and deserve against discrimination,” Sherman said.
The bill was not without its critics.
Cornerstone Action NH, a socially-conservative interest group, had urged Sununu to veto the measure as its lawyer, Christopher Jay warned it had unintended consequences.
“New Hampshire has recently lurched into the murky and chaotic area of legislation driven by a desire to re-create human sexuality. The latest example is SB 263 which specifically lists ‘gender identity’ and other categories as protected classes,” Jay testified in April.
“This act is misleadingly entitled ‘An act relative to anti-discrimination protection for students in public schools’ (emphasis added). No one wants invidious discrimination in schools. But as is often the case, few look beyond the innocent facade to examine what these words are masking.
“This bill includes sex and gender identity as protected categories, meaning that schools are prohibited from making any distinctions on the basis of sex or gender identity. What effect would this have on sex-segregated school sports? As with many proposed laws in our state, there is a rush to enact with very minimum discussion or thought, so the effect is worth noting.”
In his own statement, Sununu said he will work with stakeholders to insure the law works as intended.
“I have listened carefully to those who have expressed concerns regarding the impact of this bill and potential unintended consequences,” Sununu said. “My team will work closely with the Human Rights Commission and Department of Justice to monitor the bill’s implementation and bring forward proposed changes in the future should adjustments prove necessary.”
Setback for Learn Everywhere program
Meanwhile, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules handed a setback, but not a fatal blow, to Edleblut’s campaign to permit students to take non-traditional, alternative courses and get course credit for them from public schools.
The panel voted, 6-4, to issue a preliminary objection against the rules Edleblut and the state Board of Education had forwarded for review.
All six Democrats on the House-Senate rules panel embraced the objection; all four Republicans opposed it.
School superintendents and the National Education Association of New Hampshire had opposed the program because they thought it was a violation of local control to make a school district give credit to a course local curriculum boards had not approved.
“Today’s action was disappointing, but not unexpected. Unfortunately, any attempt to change the status quo in our schools is met with resistance,” Edleblut said. “Giving parents and students more options will create more paths to bright futures. The Department will listen to the objections that members of the committee raised today and respond within 45 days.”
Edelblut testified BAE Systems officials said two dozen had taken a course it sponsored but only two had gotten course credit for it.
The rules panel can issue a permanent objection to the rules but it can’t on its own stop a state agency from still going forward.
A permanent objection does make those rules more vulnerable should they be challenged in court according to state officials.
The Republican-led Legislature in 2018 had passed a state law instructing the Department of Education to offer “alternative” programs like Learn Everywhere.
When the Democrats took back control of both the NH House and Senate, lawmakers this year passed a bill repealing this change.
But on July 10, Sununu vetoed that bill (SB 140).“My firm belief is that all students can find success when we put them in the right environment, inside or outside of a classroom,” Sununu wrote in his veto message. “Programs like Learn Everywhere continue this legacy by enabling creative and innovative learning experiences for all of our public school students.”
Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, had authored the bill Sununu rejected.
“State law consistently defines school boards as responsible for approving curriculum for students attending their schools. SB 140 sought to clarify legislative intent and reinforce local control, which Learn Everywhere rules recently adopted by the Board of Education greatly exceed,” Kahn said. “It’s appalling Governor Sununu chose today to further shift curriculum approval authority away from school districts and to the Board of Education.”