The majority of the May monthly meeting of the NJ State Board of Education was spent discussing a topic that was not even on the agenda – the recent revisions to New Jersey’s health and physical education learning standards, and the firestorm of national media coverage surrounding them.
The night before the meeting, four of the State Board members (Vice President Andrew Mulvihill, and Members Mary Beth Berry, Mary Elizabeth Gazi, and Jack Fornaro) sent a letter to Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan, requesting a robust and inclusive review of the standards and asking that districts who have not already implemented the standards be given permission to continue to teach the 2014 standards, and delay the implementation of the 2020 standards until the review is completed.
At the meeting Wednesday morning, prior to giving the President’s Report and tending to the items on the agenda, Acting Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan delivered a statement defending the standards and clarifying what is covered under the state’s sexual education/health and physical education standards.
The Acting Commissioner also sought to disentangle the standards from two pieces of legislation that are being confused in some of the reporting. In January, 2019, Governor Murphy signed into law a bill requiring instruction on the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and LGTBQ+ persons, where appropriate. This instruction can apply to all content areas. In March, 2021, Governor Murphy signed a bill into law requiring Diversity and Inclusion instruction (commonly referred to as DEI) in an appropriate place in the curriculum. This law specifies that this instruction must highlight and promote DEI and examine the impact of unconscious bias and disparities. There is no opt out for the DEI instruction, nor the prior law. Allen-McMillan said the science of the benefits as outlined in DEI law is clear – each child can thrive given the right conditions. It’s a simple formula that all children learn best when they feel like they belong and that their community values them. Neither of these two laws has to do with the health and physical education standards, though they have been aligned together by some.
Most of the State Board members agreed with Acting Commissioner Allen-McMillan and thanked her for the clear explanation, echoing the importance of arming students with medically-accurate, age- and developmentally-appropriate information about their bodies, personal and interpersonal relationships, and how to know and communicate when their trust and privacy has been breached.
Dissenting from the majority, Vice-President Andy Mulvihill reiterated a desire to reexamine the standards, and suggested that opposition during the period of public comment wasn’t louder because the pandemic shifted parents’ focus and potentially limited access.
Ultimately, State Board President Kathy Goldenberg supported the Commissioner’s position as did the majority of State Board members and no official vote was taken. In fact, such a vote would have violated the Administrative Procedures Act which requires a minimum of public notice before a formal action is taken on a posted agenda item. There was no suggestion that the standards would be reexamined or revisited and the majority of the State Board members stood firmly behind the standards as well as the local process that allows districts to set individual curriculum for their schools.
The State Board then proceeded with its monthly agenda items, including Recognition of Teacher Appreciation Week, a Resolution in Honor of Physical Fitness and Sport Month in New Jersey, and adding one additional holiday to the calendar of religious holidays. The State Board will meet again on June 1st, 2022. At that meeting, a new permanent student representative will be welcomed to the Board.