NJ Board of Education declines to pause sex education standards
TRENTON – A group of State Board of Education members was rebuffed in its last-minute bid to pause the state’s new health and sex education standards, with the board president saying it’s not clear there’s even a way to do it but that it certainly wouldn’t happen when it wasn’t on the published agenda.
In addition to those procedural concerns, the acting education commissioner and a majority of board members also defended the standards, which were adopted in 2020 but have suddenly become a source of controversy amid changing political winds and their approaching effective date in September.
Acting Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan said she wholeheartedly disagrees with critics who say new health and sex education standards should not be taught in New Jersey schools.
“It is a disservice and actively harmful to deny our students medically accurate, age- and developmentally appropriate information about their bodies and about the personal and interpersonal relationships that shape childhood, adolescence and young adulthood,” she said.
Allen-McMillan said there are some lesson plans and materials she personally wouldn’t select for a classroom as a mother and former teacher, administrator and school board member. But she said it’s up to local districts to decide how to meet the standards and to people to opt out if that’s their choice.
Four board members pushed for the delay, including Mary Beth Berry, who said there needs to be a better solution than telling parents to opt out their children from lessons if they want.
“I’d rather us make sure we get the standards correct, that we have those guidelines in place. And I would really like to see us review this more so that we have a better plan,” Berry said.
Board of Education President Kathy Goldenberg said local school boards decide the appropriate way to meet the standards and has qualms about a community telling districts what they can and cannot teach.
“Are we going to go back to saying the world’s flat, not round? Are we going to go back to say we didn’t have evolution; we were all created equal by a deity?” Goldenberg said.
Board member Ron Butcher said people are appointed to the State Board of Education to do what’s in the best interest of children, not promote a personal ideology.
“We all have our personal opinions. We all have our personal beliefs. But that’s not why we were put on the State Board of Education,” Butcher said.
Vice President Andrew Mulvihill said board members shouldn’t have to put aside their morality and religion in handling this issue. He said lots of people are offended and upset by the standards and feel they aren’t balanced.
“There’s actually a political view. It’s not all science and it’s not all just experts,” Mulvihill said. “There’s a political and a moral view that is being put forth by the state of New Jersey on some of these issues.”
Board member Joseph Ricca says discussion of the issue is seeking to scare parents by focusing on suggested lessons that no schools are teaching.
“To start talking about things like limiting education to topics that make us comfortable or banning books because we don’t like what they say, these are un-American steps,” Ricca said. “These are fear tactics.”
Republican lawmakers criticized the State Board of Education for not pausing the start date for implementing the standards.
“By ignoring the legitimate concerns raised by parents across the state and rubber-stamping the Murphy administration’s agenda-driven priorities, the education commissioner and state board members failed the families of New Jersey,” said Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris.
“From the outreach we’ve gotten from superintendents, teachers, board of education members and parents, it’s clear they feel completely blindsided by the new requirements that have been forced upon their districts with little to no guidance other than inappropriate links on the state’s website,” said Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen.
On Monday, the Senate Education Committee is due to take up a bill requiring school boards to solicit parental input on sex education curriculum and post curriculum plans online.