A worker passes public school buses parked at a depot in Manchester, N.H., Monday, April 27, 2020. Credit: Charles Krupa / AP

CONCORD, New Hampshire — Democrats pushed back against New Hampshire’s new law regulating classroom discussion of race and other topics, presenting multiple bills Tuesday to amend or repeal the statute.

Under the state budget passed in June, New Hampshire now bans teachers from instructing children that any individual or group is inferior, racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of their race, gender or other characteristics.

The new law is being challenged in court by critics who argue it has had a chilling effect on teachers who fear they will face disciplinary action for fostering open discussion of important topics. Meanwhile, the House Education Committee held public hearings Tuesday on bills that would alter the complaint process associated with the law, repeal it entirely or repeal it and replace it with language specifying that no state law shall bar teaching the historical or current experiences of any group that is protected from discrimination.

“I believe that students deserve an honest education that enables them to learn from the mistakes of the past to create a better future,” said Rep Charlotte DiLorenzo, D-Newmarket, a sponsor of two of the bills. “The current law shortchanges our students from developing the tools they need to become successful.”

Teachers union president Megan Tuttle said teachers are not telling students that one race is inherently better or worse, but the fear of being misinterpreted and possibly losing their licenses has changed how they teach. Some are not allowing students to review each others’ work or lead discussions because they don’t know where they will lead, she said.

“Our students and our state lose if opportunities to constructively address race in our classrooms is muzzled and criminalized by this law that is vague on content and unyielding in punishment,” said Tuttle, executive director of NEA-NH, which has sued over the law.

New Hampshire and other Republican-led states have recently moved to regulate classroom discussions over concerns about critical race theory, which centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions. Speaking in support of the bills, Asma Elhuni, a lobbyist for Rights and Democracy, described her personal experience as a Muslim African immigrant.

“When I get pulled aside at the airport 90% of the time when I fly, it is called institutional racism,” she said. “To me, it’s not a question of whether institutional racism exists. It exists in our country, it exists in our state, I live it. The question is, are we brave enough to address this and talk about this to make sure it changes?”

Republican lawmakers, however, have proposed expanding the law behind K-12 schools to include colleges and universities. Another GOP bill would update a Cold War-era law on “teacher loyalty”  to prohibit teachers from advocating for “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 which does not include the worldwide context of now outdated and discouraged practices,” including “teaching that the United States was founded on racism.”

Story by Holly Ramer.