New Jersey school board OKs new equity rules slammed by critics

Changes will drive a ‘wedge’ between teachers and parents, state senators say

By: - August 3, 2023 6:54 am

The new rules are part of a required periodic rewrite of the state’s administrative code that governs equity in education. (Courtesy of the New Jersey Governor’s Office)

The New Jersey State Board of Education approved controversial new equity rules in a narrow vote at the tail end of a contentious hourslong hearing Wednesday.

The new regulations will require schools that segregate sex ed classes to do so based on gender identity instead of sex, expand the number of protected classes the rules shield, and remove numerous instances of gendered language they contain, among a host of other changes. They won approval in a narrow 6-5 vote.

The new rules are part of a required periodic rewrite of the state’s administrative code that governs equity in education. They have been the focus of fierce opposition, receiving a staggering 856 public comments (not all in opposition). Two Republican state senators issued a statement after the meeting accusing board members of “driving a wedge” between parents, teachers, and local school administrators.

Some particularly disputed portions of the new code replace the word “equality” with “equity” and strike gender-specific language, like replacing a reference to “men and women” with the word “persons.” Another change replaces a reference to “both sexes” with one to “all sexes.”

“We are not looking to take programs away from people who are deserving of entering those programs, but we also need to look at the individuals who fall through the cracks,” board member Elaine Bobrove, who voted in favor of the new rules, said Wednesday.

The provisions changing how school districts can segregate their sex ed classrooms saw the board divided, with some members claiming the move to segregation by gender identity instead of sex is discriminatory.

“It is discriminatory to me to have girls that want to be in one class and have all girls there talking about this issue, and you send a boy in there — from their perspective or some people’s perspective — that’s the issue. I think it’s discrimination,” said board vice president Andrew Mulvihill, who said he does not believe in transgender people.

Some board members suggested the vote on the new rules be delayed to offer more time to consider their effects and to review the voluminous public comments the proposal drew. Mulvihill made a motion to extend the prior rules to give the board more time to consider the proposed changes, but the motion was defeated 5-6. 

Sen. Tony Bucco is among the critics of new rules changes by the New Jersey Board of Education. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey

The proposal’s supporters said the changes are meant to allow schools to adapt to their students’ needs and to ensure students are free to note their discomfort.

“That’s what we’re asserting, that everyone has a voice, not that one voice is louder than another,” said Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan.

Local districts will continue to decide whether to segregate their sex ed classrooms under the new rules.

Critics opposed to the changes variously claimed the Department of Education was overstepping its legal authority in adopting the new rules, that the rules violate religious liberties, or that schools should stop teaching sex ed altogether. Some called for the section of the administrative code to be repealed altogether. 

Others wrongly claimed the rule change would eliminate sex-segregated sports (the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletics Association governs school sports, not the State Board of Education).

Some who supported the changes in principle said the proposal should have been edited to increase transparency around classroom representation and other measures to better track the effectiveness of comprehensive public equity plans that schools are required to draft once every three years. These plans assess inequities between protected classes within a district and are required to include plans for closing achievement and opportunity gaps across demographics.

Charles Payne, director of Rutgers University’s Joseph C. Cornwall Center for Metropolitan Studies, said the board should emphasize data collection and require districts to report other information, including access to mental health services and teacher turnover, among others.

Other changes will cut the amount of time school districts have to implement comprehensive equity plans from 180 days to 60 days. Districts that miss that deadline risk losing state and federal school aid.

Board President Kathy Goldenberg, who voted for the new rules, raised concerns that the timeline could lead to sanctions for school districts that make earnest attempts to implement their plans.

“Giving them that 180-day runway could take them into another school year, and we want to have the work begin to occur as close to the crafting of the document as possible,” Allen-McMillan said.

Sen. Tony Bucco (R-Morris) is among those upset with the board’s action.

“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,” Bucco said in a statement Wednesday.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.