N.J.’s LGBTQ curriculum still faces hurdles 3 years after it was mandated

Desks are spaced out 6-feet apart in a classroom (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

Desks are spaced out 6-feet apart in a classroom (Avi Wolfman-Arent/WHYY)

In 2019, New Jersey enacted a measure that required public schools to implement an LGBTQ curriculum for students in grades five through 12, becoming the second U.S. state to do so after California.

However, advocates said many school districts still face challenges in rolling out the new curriculum.

Kate Okeson is co-founder and program director at Make It Better For Youth, a Monmouth County consortium for LGBTQ+ youth.The organization helped develop a pilot program implemented in a dozen school districts across the state in January 2020 (out of 65 school districts that applied for the program).

The expectation was that it would help prepare the state for full implementation by the fall, when all schools were required to have a curriculum in place.

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In March of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted much of the remainder of the school year, with school districts shifting to remote learning. And while Okeson said the pilot program provided tremendous “qualitative” feedback, there wasn’t much quantitative data to go off of.

Like the rest of the nation, New Jersey is facing a new normal. With students back in their classrooms, advocates said they are working hard to ensure compliance with the law.

Okeson said challenges have emerged because the mandate was unfunded when enacted.

Many school districts have to find ways to ensure they are in compliance, and it is taking time, she said.

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“Districts have to figure out ways to take their same professional development budget, or … long-term learning budget that they have for their employees, and figure out how to accomplish things that educators may not have had as content when they themselves were in school,” Okeson said.

The Department of Education is not required to provide resources or guidelines for carrying out the lesson plans and curricula.

Much of that work has been done by advocacy groups like Make It Better For Youth and Garden State Equality, who have provided information for school districts, parents and students about inclusive lessons online.

She also stated that advocacy groups have no way of holding school districts accountable. The Department of Education is not tracking or publicizing that data, she said.

“It has to be clear that it’s being counted somewhere,” Okeson said. “What’s baseball if you’re not keeping score?”

The Department of Education did not immediately respond to our request for comment.

Garden State Equality’s executive director Christian Fuscarino said there is still stigma surrounding LGBTQ-inlcusive curricula, and that vocal opposition from conservative groups and charismatic media figureheads has made it tough in some districts.

“We don’t have a full number of which schools are actually in compliance with the law. What we do know is that we’re hearing from student organizers and parents from certain districts and aren’t teaching these lessons” Fuscarino said.

“It’s important that young people, no matter which district you go to, are receiving these lessons … Bullying rates decline when young people see themselves reflected in the lessons that they learn.”

Okeson echoed Fuscarino, saying she has heard from several parents about challenges on the local level. Though, she did not go into detail about specific school districts, because she said it would undermine local organizing efforts.

“[School districts] could have board members that have a personal opinion, and they’re acting on an agenda. They could have vocal parent groups. They could have vocal faith groups in the community,” Okeson said.

It comes as some U.S. states have rushed to pass bills that ban curriculums about sexual orientation and gender identity in schools, including Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law.

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