The State Board of Education had a couple of hot-button topics to decide this week in the otherwise routine process of tweaking the statewide standards for what students should learn in school.
One was expanded teaching on climate change in schools from kindergarten through high school, touted as the first such statewide mandate in the country. The other involved family life and sex education, always a contentious topic.
In one of the more unusually testy meetings of the board on Wednesday, the first went quietly, and the second — well, not so much.
The climate change revisions had been long in the making. Following calls from Gov. Phil Murphy and legislators for additions to the standards, the Murphy administration this winter moved to infuse a heavy dose of climate change issues into the subject standards — and not just in science — as part of a five-year review process that started last year.
Keeping age appropriate from kindergarten through high school, the new inclusions to the standards would predictably include the study of global warming, for example. The social studies standards also would call for teaching about how rising seas have impacted communities, or the arts would include more creative attention to the crisis.
First Lady Tammy Murphy joins in
After some early questions, the proposal has largely won broad approval, with educators noting that many of the topics are covered already and others applauding the new emphasis. The board, meeting online Wednesday, gave its final stamp of support without any further discussion.
First Lady Tammy Murphy, who had championed the inclusion of the material, joined the meeting for a few minutes to mark what she called a “momentous occasion.”
“As New Jersey is poised to lead the nation in the green economy, it is critical that every student is provided the opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis in an interdisciplinary way beyond just their science classrooms,” Murphy said.
“It is not just scientists who lead an understanding of this issue, but urban planners, public servants, artists, engineers and more,” she said.
The second topic — sex education — was more contentious.
Part of the health and physical education standards, the revisions have had a rockier history since first proposed this winter, with some critics saying they represented a scaling-back in the state’s gains on sexual education, while others said they were too permissive.
No unanimity on sex education
A series of related hearings was marked by protests, especially against the greater inclusion of transgender rights as a topic to be discussed, saying it would be a violation of parents’ rights to teach those issues.
Dissent was voiced again on Wednesday. Board vice president Andrew Mulvihill said the state board was going too far to promote the instruction of sexual practices or the option of abortion in case of pregnancy.
“I just don’t think a teacher should be telling kids that one of the things you can do if you get pregnant is to go have an abortion,” Mulvihill said.
“There is a whole new section addressing transgender issues from the second grade on,” he said. “I was just hoping we could work on the concept of respecting all people for who they are and what they are.”
Mary Elizabeth Gazi, a state board member from Bound Brook, raised several concerns as to a parent’s rights regarding what their children are taught.
“This is personal and I may not be popular for saying it, but I have gotten the message loud and clear from a lot of parents,” she said. “When a student is taught something in school that undermines the core values that a parent is trying to instill, to me that’s a problem. That’s a big problem.”
But state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet and his staff countered that there remained rights under state and local code for families to opt out of certain instruction for their children. And, at what may be his last board meeting as commissioner before departing for a new post at Kean University, he defended the revisions as part of a changed world.
“Our kids now are in the situation where they are growing up fast and the reality is the kids at a younger age are involved in activities we once thought was only for adults,” he said. “But the reality is our job is to educate them. Our job to ensure that they know behavior may or may not be acceptable.”
Board member Joseph Ricca, a former East Hanover superintendent, said education is full of complicated discussions involving teachers, children and their families. And in one of the testier exchanges, he took a swipe at Mulvihill’s stand.
“I appreciate the vice president’s political statement and his opinion,” Ricca said. “I don’t appreciate his paternalistic view of the parents and guardians and their ability to make decisions based on the best interest of their children.”
In the end, the standards were approved in a single resolution vote, 8-4. And the board’s longest-standing member reminded his colleagues there will surely be more debate to come.
“Since 1996, I don’t remember any of the standards meeting 100 percent acceptance,” said Ronald Butcher, who has been three decades on the board. “I find as we are doing this, we need to focus on what is in the best interest of our students today.”
“But we also need to remember these standards are not written in stone,” he said. “Once we pass them, we have the ability to continue looking at them and further refining them.”