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New Jersey’s Department of Education, with the approval of Gov. Phil Murphy, can’t stop talking about sex. As such, Murphy is doing a great job of hamstringing Democratic candidates this November when all 120 seats of the State Legislature are up for grabs.
You’d think we live in California. First, let’s look at some recent events.
Earlier this month the State Board of Education spent the bulk of the public meeting debating the merits of Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan’s changes to Chapter 7, “Managing for Equality and Equity in Education.” While most of these changes are inconsequential updates, one particular amendation caught the eye of Board members, parents (there were over 250 comments), and local legislators: instead of deeming that classes on human sexuality separate students by gender—whether they’re boys or girls— now districts must separate them “based on gender identity” in order to avoid discriminating against transgender students.
The Board pondered these implications at length. “Isn’t that discriminatory,” asked Mary Beth Berry, “if a child goes into a [sex ed] class when last week he was a boy and now he’s a girl? This could make my daughter uncomfortable.” Vice President Andrew Mulvihill: “Why is it acceptable to discriminate against girls? Aren’t they a protected class?” Joseph Ricca, who typically approves all Allen-McMillan’s recommendations, suggested the board delay the vote to consider the issue further. Yet the revisions squeaked by with a 6-5 vote.
The hundred or so people in the audience erupted in anger and disappointment and that was just the beginning of the fall-out, even though the DOE scheduled the meeting for the dog days of summer. Forget about Republicans: New Jersey Democrats decried what they saw as intrusions of politics into local control. Senator Vin Gopal, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the changes as an attempt to “mislead parents with outlandish accusations of schools teaching children inappropriate things with zero evidence of that taking place across over 600 school districts throughout the state.” Senate President Nick Scutari and Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin charged, “all children deserve subject matter that is age appropriate, posted clearly and transparently for families to review, and free from any politics.”
For good or ill —and it cuts both ways—no New Jersey politician hoping to secure or hold onto a seat ever gets in the way of local control.
The repercussions of the DOE’s hyper-focus on what it calls “social justice” do more than give parents heartburn. A week after the Board meeting JerseyCAN published a new report called, “Leveraging Literacy – The Path to Education Recovery in New Jersey.” Largely due to the DOE’s failure to oversee the way current and prospective teachers are instructed on how to teach kids to read (maybe because they’re too busy worrying about gender identity), we rank as one of the worst states in failing to adhere to the science of literacy. That’s a big reason why, as the report explains, only one out of ten third-graders in Asbury Park and one out of five third-graders in Newark can read proficiently.
But the Murphy Administration is hell-bent on keeping its eyes on (according to new CDC calculations) the 1.4% of students who identify as transgender.
That may be a popular stance with NJEA executives but not so much with parents, regardless of their political or gender identification.
Murphy’s determination to hamstring Democrats in November isn’t stopping there. On Friday Superior Court Judge Judge David F. Bauman issued an injunction on new policies passed by Middletown Township, Marlboro Township, and Manalapan-Englishtown Regional boards of education that require staff to notify parents if a child comes out as transgender. The Murphy Administration sued those school districts and the policies are stayed until a ruling before an Administrative Law Judge. (The state has also sued Hanover for a similar violation.)
One could argue that no minority is too small for government protection and I’d agree. (Just returned from a vacation where my husband and I saw too many swastikas.) One could argue that New Jersey takes local control too far, especially in regard to ghettoizing low-income families into low-performing school districts, and I’d agree.
Yet our students’ needs are so dire. Are these politically-driven issues the best use of our DOE’s time? Is this really the hill Murphy wants to die on? Or, given his quickly-approaching exit of the NJ stage, the hill he wants the Democratic Party to die on?
California offers a teachable moment in what happens when social justice warriors get ahead of their skis by diminishing the importance of student achievement and parent preference. There, for instance, new math guidelines tell math teachers to “be committed to social justice work” by teaching students to understand that “mathematics plays a role in the power structures and privileges that exist within our society,” reinventing math, according to today’s Wall Street Journal, as “a grievance study.” The result of these sorts of policies, along with aggressive stances on gender identity and other culture war issues, have given the Republicans big lifts in school board and legislative races.
California Republican Assemblyman Bill Essayli told Democrats,“we want the public to know what your agenda is,and we want to run on this in the next election.”
I’m no mind reader but I’m guessing NJ Republicans are feeling a bit more optimistic about their chances of swinging seats in reliably blue districts. Who do they have to thank?
Governor Murphy and his Department of Education.