Assembly votes to require diversity instruction in NJ schools
TRENTON — The Assembly voted Thursday to require school districts to include instruction on diversity and inclusion as part of New Jersey’s curriculum standards.
Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, D-Burlington, said the idea grew from a series of meetings she has held with students in her legislative district, who told her about challenges students face in being accepted without stigma regardless of their culture, race, sexuality or economic status.
“And we talked about the various tweets that have been outgoing by many students which are totally ignorant of what we need to get done here in New Jersey and in our society,” Murphy said.
“If we are trying to make our communities inclusive of every single person, from our students all the way up to our police, our government, our residents, we have to make sure that everyone is totally informed of what it’s like to be part of a community,” she said.
The diversity and inclusion instruction would apply in grades 9 through 12, starting in the 2021-22 school year, if the bill becomes law. A separate bill requires middle school students to be taught about racial discrimination and social justice as part of social studies classes.
About three-fourths of the Assembly Republican caucus wasn’t in favor of the bill.
Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-Morris, said he agrees that schools should be teaching tolerance and equality, which he called fundamental American values, and diversity. But he opposed the mandate to teach high school students about unconscious bias, calling it divisive.
“It’s a very questionable sort of idea. To push it on 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds in their high school classroom I think could send a lot of wrong messages,” Webber said.
“Essentially as I see it, lessons and classes on unconscious bias are telling teenagers, adolescents, high school students in New Jersey, that their biased, they’re bigoted, and they don’t even know it. And they have to remove that from their character,” he said. “It tells other students that get these lessons that they’re actually victims of this unconscious racism and bigotry.”
“We all, brought up in the same crucible as human beings in this society, in this country with its history, do have biases,” said Assemblyman Herb Conaway, D-Burlington. “And this has been shown repeatedly in health care. It’s been shown in policing. It’s been shown across many institutions in our society.”
Webber said there are ways to teach those subjects already, such as social justice lessons taught through Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“You want to teach kids about equality, teach them the Declaration of Independence. All men are created equal, endowed by the creator with certain inalienable rights. Among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” Webber said. “You teach those values right, you’re going to address racism and bigotry and intolerance in your schools.”
“We’ve been teaching our kids about MLK and slavery, as well as Lincoln, which is important,” said Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, D-Hudson. “However, we still see intolerance.”
Ten Republicans voted against the diversity instruction bill, and another 10 voted to abstain. Two were absent from the session. Six voted for it. All the Democrats who were present voted for it.
“The days and times are different, and our children need to be educated in the ramifications of what they do when they’re not tolerant of others,” said Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris.
The vote on the middle-school instruction bill was 56-7 with nine votes to abstain.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.