DURHAM — Protesters congregated outside the newly constructed Oyster River Middle School Thursday morning, holding signs in support of New Hampshire public education while rebuking state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
Several dozen people lined the sidewalks, stating they believe Edelblut doesn’t support the state’s public school system. Edelblut has faced widespread criticism of late, including calls for his resignation or for Gov. Chris Sununu to remove him, following an opinion piece he wrote last month published by news organizations around the state.
Edelblut, in the opinion piece, wrote family “values systems” are being disrupted by some educators who, he said, show “bias” when they teach about “a sensitive topic like sexuality and gender.” Edelblut wrote some children “as young as 8 and 9” are being taught that “there are totally more than two genders! Some people identify as a gender that is not male or female, some identify as more than one gender, and some people don’t identify as any gender.” He wrote this “might conflict with – or worse, undermine – the value system of many of the families.”
Superintendent Lori Lane of the Somersworth schools responded with a letter of her own, accusing Edelblut of using a “veiled attempt to promote ‘parent rights'” to push his agenda that she said “promotes hatred and bigotry.” She called his actions “bullying” and urged Sununu to replace Edelblut.
Superintendent Lori Lane’s full letter: Replace NH Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut now.
Protesters, led by local clergy members from around the state, gathered Thursday morning at the Community Church of Durham and walked through town to the school. The protesters, also including local parents, verbally pushed back against Edelblut as the commissioner was in town to attend a state Board of Education meeting at the new middle school.
The Rev. Heidi Heath, executive director for the New Hampshire Council of Churches, helped lead the crowd.
“We believe that every student should feel safe in the classroom to speak about their family, to learn about other families, to learn about accurate history and to grow into the wholeness of who they are,” Heath said. “Our teachers teach things from books, but they also teach our students how to feel safe, how to use their voices and help them grow.”
Signs outside the school on Thursday read: “Edelblut is a Disgrace,” “Strong Public Schools = Strong Communities” and “Edelblut Should Get the Boot.”
Edelblut responds to criticism
During a pause in the meeting, Edelblut remarked he had observed the protesters and appreciated that they attended the meeting and what he called a mutual appreciation and support for public schools.
“I’ve heard from a number of people on that opinion piece that I published out there, people who are very enthusiastic and support the piece and the opinions that were expressed in there and then people who were not as supportive of that,” he said. “I think we all share the same common value of making sure that our children have an opportunity for success and bright futures.”
Edelblut’s opinion piece criticized teachers he called “activist educators,” some of whom are “knowingly dismantling the foundations of a value system (parents and student caretakers) are attempting to build.”
The commissioner wrote New Hampshire students need to learn about socialism, for example, but should not be persuaded by educators to become socialists. If a classroom’s walls are plastered with posters “extoling the virtues of socialism, the educators undermine the values of families.”
“The actions of some educators, which have become increasingly apparent through social media as a result of the pandemic, are undermining the sacred trust that educators hold,” Edelblut wrote. “Educators have a position of influence over children. The correct use of that influence will support and not compromise the values of families. Good educators have always recognized that.”
Edelblut’s full commentary:Effective NH teachers keep bias out of their classrooms
Response to Edelblut commentary:The time has come. NH Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut must go.
Edelbut’s opinion piece also said when a student goes to an art class, parents expect they’ll be taught lessons about art. Parents of students “should not be concerned, as occurred in another New Hampshire classroom, that the introduction to art will begin with a lesson in pronouns and links to Black Lives Matters for kids and LGBTQ+ for kids.”
The Edelblut op-ed included a link to a 68-page file with examples of classroom instruction families had reported to the Education Department for conflicting with their beliefs and values, he wrote. The art class example was one such case reported to the New Hampshire Department of Education.
Protesters, letter writers see Edelbut’s remarks differently
Lee resident Mary Cobb, mother of a current Oyster River High School student and two graduates of the school, stood among the crowd of protesters and reacted to Edeblut’s commentary.
“My children went to public school. Their art teachers taught them fabulous art, we had fabulous art shows. My children didn’t come home from school with a political agenda,” she said. “That’s outrageous.”
Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard:Reject Commissioner Edelblut’s exclusionary vision of public education
Edelblut was asked Thursday if he believed the art class example he wrote about breaches the “sacred trust” between educators and parents or caretakers of students. He said, “What I believe is that we really need to support both our families and our educators in the provision of public education.”
Edelblut added, “Some of the individuals read the piece and imagined that somehow the piece was somehow not supportive of public schools when in fact the purpose of the piece was to demonstrate the importance and the support of public school, and the importance of that value and the trust that our families place in our educational institutions.”
Durham resident Lyssa Bayne-Kim, mother of two Oyster River Middle School students, said she is wary of those who oppose equity and diversity in education within her community.
She also pointed to Croydon, New Hampshire, where voters recently overturned what would have been drastic school budget cuts led by Free State residents who attended a meeting when most residents stayed home. Bayne-Kim worries about similar events possibly happening in Durham one day.
“Those voices are getting louder, and I’m afraid of that,” she said.
Edelblut and Sununu: Political alliance goes back years
A spokesperson for Sununu did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story. Questions sent to the governor included asking if Sununu remains supportive of Edelblut as education commissioner. The governor was also asked for his views on Edelblut’s opinion piece.
Sununu, who is running for a fourth term as governor in 2022, was nearly defeated by Edelblut in the Republican primary in 2016. Sununu won by less than 1,000 votes, and he immediately gained Edelblut’s support.
Letters:Gov. Sununu responsible for bad decision to appoint Frank Edelblut
After Sununu won the 2016 governor’s race, he appointed Edelblut as education commissioner, a role he has held since February 2017. At the time, critics pointed to Edelblut’s lack of public education experience and questioned why someone who, along with his wife, chose to home-school his children should be in charge of public schools.
The answer may be, at least in part, because Edelblut and Sununu have both supported “school choice.” The program went into effect in New Hampshire in September 2021 after Republicans succeeded in passing it following previous failed attempts in the Legislature. The law creates “education freedom accounts” that allow families who opt out of public school to use public funds for their children for private school and home-schooling, including tuition and materials.
Many Democrats criticize the education accounts for taking away funds from public school and for lacking accountability for parents who accept the money. Some Republicans have raised concerns about accountability, too, and an audit of the program in 2023 has been agreed upon by the Republican-led New Hampshire House and Senate.
Sununu has occasionally criticized Edelblut. This includes last year when Edelblut spoke at a forum hosted by the Government Integrity Project, a conservative activist group, according to a report by New Hampshire Public Radio. Edeblut spoke in favor of efforts to fight school policies requiring masks and pushing back against school boards. Sununu told NHPR at the time that Edelblut’s participation in the “fringe group” forum was “inappropriate.”
‘Teachers need to be free’
The state Board of Education meeting at the middle school in Durham featured no public comment. A group of the morning protesters, seated with their signs, attended as the meeting started.
Heath said the various faith leaders and clergy members who participated in the protest believe a key teaching of the Christian text: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”
“We believe our teachers need to be free to teach the whole truth of our history and of student experiences and to provide safe spaces for our students to learn,” Heath said. “Every student in New Hampshire has the right to a safe, equitable and adequate education. That’s a moral issue and it’s a theological issue.”