A growing number of North Jersey lawmakers are criticizing the state Board of Education’s controversial move to incorporate gender identity into the equity policy that applies to public school districts statewide.
In a 6-5 vote on Aug. 2, the board narrowly approved several revisions to the state’s administrative code, which include removing a series of gendered terms and prohibiting districts from segregating sexual education classes based on biological sex.
Additionally, transgender students will now be able to participate in traditionally gender-segregated school activities instead of being prohibited by their assigned gender at birth, according to the new guidelines.
A Move to add More Inclusivity
First enacted in 2003, the equity policy seeks to ensure all New Jersey students have access to educational programs, activities and opportunities regardless of their race, gender identity, housing status, immigration status or financial situation.
Since December 2022, when the board began mulling the revisions, more than 850 comments from the public have been submitted regarding the proposed change, with the majority coming from parental rights advocates who said they believed the state is overstepping its authority.
State education officials have said the amendments were made to add more inclusive language into the policy, as well as provide districts, students and parents “with a concise summary” of the legal framework “governing equity and problems associated with the opportunity gap in the public schools.”
Following last week’s vote, State Senate Minority President Anthony Bucco (R-25) and State Sen. Michael Testa (R-1) released a statement criticizing the board for being “focused more on advancing identity politics” instead of “respecting the rights of concern parents to have a voice in decisions made that impact their children’s education.”
Bucco stated, “All kids deserve the opportunity to succeed in-and-out of the classroom but the best way to ensure this success is by bringing their parents, teachers, and local school administrators together, not by driving a wedge between them. Today’s State Board of Education vote unfortunately drives a wedge further between these groups.”
The Morris County legislator went on to say, “Students are falling behind from pandemic-related learning loss and instead of prioritizing reading, writing, and math, the State Board is infusing progressive identity politics into the classroom.
“Parents are rightfully concerned about what’s being taught to their children and deserve to have a voice in their local school communities. We do not need government bureaucrats substituting on their behalf.”
Dems Mad as Well
Democratic party leaders have also expressed concern over the vote.
In a statement issued Aug. 3, State Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-22) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19), said, “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 any politics,” they said.
“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,” the lawmakers said.
Under the newly-updated policy, districts have 60 days to implement their equity plans and could face losing state and federal school aid if they fail to do so within that period.
State Sens. Joe Lagana (D-38) and Vin Gopal (D-11) criticized the board over the potential for districts to be sanctioned if the changes don’t happen fast enough.
In a joint statement, they said, “The state Board of Education is charged with the adoption of administrative code and advising on educational policies proposed by the commissioner. This body, which has a membership made up of gubernatorial appointments — a majority of whom was appointed by former Governor Christie—should be focused on this mission and not imposing sanctions that would remove access to funding that kids deserve.”
The criticism from both sides of the aisle come as parental rights is expected to be a key issue in the November election, when all 120 seats in the state Legislative are up for a vote.
Eyes on November
GOP lawmakers have been vocal opponents of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration’s support for LGBTQ+ students, criticizing any changes to sex education and curriculum as government overreach. Democrats, however, have been generally silent on the matter.
In their statement last week, Gopal and Lagana said they “strongly condemn the misinformation and politicizing campaigns that our schools are falling victim to because of the agenda of politicians more interested in scaring parents instead of being truthful.”
“There is a continual attempt by these politicians 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. We are seeing significant teacher shortages across the state which has become exponentially more significant due to the baseless attacks that they are making,” they said.