Culture wars arrive in NJ ahead of fall elections, focusing on gender in education

Even though the calendar shows New Jersey entering the dog days of summer, lawmakers are getting a jump on campaign season, embracing the culture wars that seem to have taken hold throughout the United States.

A procedural update made by the State Board of Education last week to statewide education policy seems to set the tone for what will likely be a contentious election season.

At issue is the wording in the policy, which accounts for gender identity.

Dan Cassino, a professor of government and politics at Fairleigh Dickinson University, said that what makes this most striking is how little it would change. In essence, politicians are using the code to create a “wedge issue” for making “political hay,” he said.

“They’re changing out words like ‘equity’ versus ‘equality,’ and they’re saying all genders versus male and female,” Cassino said. “Republicans in the state believe after what happened in Virginia, where that issue was leveraged very powerfully by Republican candidates for statewide office, and with the close call that Governor Murphy had in the last gubernatorial election, they think this is a powerful wedge issue, and they are going to do whatever they can to try and make that into an issue going into the upcoming legislative elections.”

He noted that there is “not a lot here except for the potential for making political hay out of it.”

The board, all holdovers from the Christie era, made changes to the administrative code. These changes adjusted regulations to consider gender identity.

Updates include replacing the word “equality” with “equity” throughout and removing gendered pronouns and nouns. Names of certain mandated curricula have been changed, such as replacing “African American history curriculum” with “Amistad Commission curriculum.”

“‘Equality’ means sameness, uniformity, and equivalence, and focuses on a student’s access to educational resources,” the state said in its summary of the changes. “Equity” takes into consideration each student’s different needs and, by not assuming sameness, offers a fairer approach, the state said.

Cassino said the fact that the board members were all originally appointed during the Christie administration is further proof that this is “not some radical shift in the way the state is teaching sex ed to students.”

“A lot of it is, honestly, fear-mongering,” he said. “’We want to make it look like the schools are now going to do radical gender-neutral indoctrination of your children starting in kindergarten,’ when of course nothing like that is actually happening. This is a purely manufactured wedge issue.”

The update is something the board is required to do every seven years, but that did not put the board above reproach.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, left, and Senate President Nick Scutari speak on the floor before Gov. Phil Murphy (not pictured) delivers the budget address in the assembly chambers of the New Jersey Statehouse on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Senate President Nick Scutari, in a joint statement with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, called it “unfortunate” that the board didn’t coordinate with policymakers about the changes, going on to say they “expected better communication.” Neither chamber leader specified further which parts of the code changes they were concerned about or would have liked to discuss.

“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,” the statement said. “All children deserve subject matter that is age appropriate, posted clearly and transparently for families to review, and free from any politics.”

More:Parental rights candidates are rattling NJ school boards. Meetings have been tempestuous

Their Republican counterparts took things a step further. Senate Minority Leader Anthony Bucco said in a statement that “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.”

Since then, Bucco, Sen. Michael Testa and Assembly Minority Leader Joseph DiMaio have taken it a step further by announcing they plan to introduce legislation to repeal the update.

Bucco and Testa called for a special legislative session to call a vote to repeal the changes before they go into effect.

“Not only should we repeal the controversial decision made by the state board, but we must also go one step further and require legislative approval of any action that would update or revise school curriculum,” Testa said.

Cassino, the FDU professor, noted that in recent elections, discussing transgender issues has been “effective as a political tool.”

“It turns out when you even talk about trans issues, just bring those issues up, it actually activates all sorts of other relatively conservative attitudes among voters,” he said. “That does activate all these other kindred ideas, and those generators activated tend to work for the benefit of Republicans. So this is a savvy political ploy. But I think it is really just that, a political ploy.”

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