A 30-second ad from New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union has reignited a debate over the state’s new sex-education standards, putting the issue front and center weeks before pivotal congressional midterm races.
New Jersey has more Democratic incumbents running for re-election in “frontline” swing districts than any other state in the country. And conflicts over cultural issues that are likely to energize Republican voters, including what is taught in schools, are considered potent as Democrats struggle to retain control of Washington.
Nowhere have the sex-education standards, which will be taught for the first time this school year, attracted more attention than in the campaign for the Seventh Congressional District — widely considered the most competitive of the state’s 12 midterm contests.
There, Representative Tom Malinowski, a Democrat, is running for re-election against Tom Kean Jr., a Republican who came within about one percentage point of beating him in 2020. The district has since been redrawn to include more Republican-leaning towns, making the race even closer.
Mr. Kean, a son of a popular former Republican governor making his fourth run for Congress, has focused his campaign primarily on the economy, but he has also worked to keep the discussion of sex education at the forefront.
Then, in mid-August, the union, the New Jersey Education Association, released its ad, which landed with explosive force.
It stressed the importance of working together to build strong schools, but showed angry adults shouting and pointing fingers and called them “extremists” who “only want to fight and argue to score political points.”
Union officials said the spot was meant to send a signal that the powerful organization had no plan to back down from the impassioned debates that have made school boards battlegrounds in the war over what students may read or be taught.
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“It’s a turning point in our country’s trajectory,” said Dr. Chrissi Miles, director of professional development and instruction issues for the union. “And we intend to focus on the importance of what teaching the truth is.”
Republicans and national right-leaning groups immediately homed in on the use of the word “extremists” in the ad to describe some parents.
Republicans in the State Senate interrupted a summer hiatus to hold an online panel discussion — “Sex Education, State Curriculum Mandates and Parental Rights” — on Facebook Live. Then, days later, their counterparts in the Assembly released a biting parody of the ad, which was quickly pulled from YouTube after the union complained it violated copyright laws.
The New Jersey Board of Education adopted the revised sex-education standards in 2020, but they are being implemented for the first time this school year. They require second graders to learn about gender-role stereotypes and the ways people express gender. By the end of fifth grade, students will be taught about sexual development and the role of hormones. Eighth graders will receive instruction on factors that contribute to making healthy decisions about sex and be able to define vaginal, anal and oral sex.
Districts have wide flexibility in designing the curriculum, and parents are permitted to remove children from any class where the content is taught.
The controversy over the new standards first flared at a wintertime board of education meeting in Westfield, N.J., an affluent commuter town where Mr. Kean lives, about 30 miles west of Manhattan. Some parents have questioned whether the standards are age-appropriate; others have likened the instruction to pedophilia and child abuse.
In the few media interviews Mr. Kean has granted during his campaign, he has stressed the importance of valuing parents’ input in education. He also named a website, centered mainly on fund-raising for his campaign, the Parents Voice Coalition; donors are told on the site that Mr. Kean “knows it is wrong” for “young children to be taught sex education which focuses on gender-identity instruction and normalizing pornography.”
His opponent, Mr. Malinowski, said on Twitter that Mr. Kean “is hitching his wagon to the most extreme wing in his party.”
“There is a fringe movement,” he said at a campaign event, “that has descended on our school boards, that is targeting our educators and drowning out the voice of parents — Democratic and Republican — who just want their kids to have a quality education.”
Mr. Malinowski said that movement “is trying to divide us over made-up cultural” nonsense, according to a video first reported by Breitbart and confirmed by his campaign.
A union spokesman said its ad made it clear that it considered parents “important partners in creating great schools.”
“We are very concerned, however, by the small but very loud group of people who are doing dishonest and dangerous things, like calling educators pedophiles and racists,” the spokesman, Steven Baker, said.
Last year, parents angered by mask and vaccine mandates and the effect of remote education on young children and teenagers became powerful voting blocs in the country’s two governors’ races.
In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, rode a tide of parental disquiet to an upset victory. In New Jersey, where Republican turnout surged, Philip D. Murphy, a Democrat, narrowly won re-election, and his party lost seven seats in the State Legislature, including one held by the powerful Senate president.
But Democrats outnumber Republicans by about one million voters in New Jersey, a largely suburban state filled with the type of well-educated, moderate voters who helped Democrats flip the House during the last midterm races in 2018 and who are seen as crucial to this year’s outcome.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturned a constitutional right to abortion, the political power of any argument centered on parental choice and government overreach is also far less clear.
Wednesday’s Democratic congressional victory in Alaska and a vote against removing the right to abortion from the State Constitution in Kansas have provided early indications that abortion access can be a powerful motivator for midterm voters. Last month in New York, Pat Ryan, a Democrat, was elected to Congress in a swing district similar to Mr. Malinowski’s after running a campaign focused on abortion rights.
“The question is,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, “can Democrats effectively translate Dobbs into a larger message to neutralize the Republican’s successful message from 2021: Which party really controls how you live your life?”
In April, after the New Jersey sex education standards became controversial, the State Department of Education issued a memo clarifying them. In it, Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, the acting education commissioner, stressed the importance of teaching children about puberty before its onset and identifying gender stereotypes, including those that can be academically limiting.
“Beginning these conversations in early elementary school will help students develop empathy for a diverse group of people,” she wrote, “and to learn about how to show respect to people no matter how they identify.”
Understanding proper terminology, she added, empowers children to “stay safe, evaluate risks, make informed decisions and communicate health issues or injuries if necessary.”
Much of the controversy stemmed from an example of possible sample lessons created by a Washington nonprofit that champions youth sexual health and bodily autonomy — a link to which was shared at a Westfield Board of Education meeting but never adopted by the town.
“We unintentionally started a national storm,” the school board president, Brendan Galligan, said.
Mr. Galligan, who is not registered with either major political party, said the ensuing media attention resulted in a monthslong distraction from more pressing issues.
“We’ve gotten to a point in the country where everything is a Republican or Democratic issue. Nobody wants to listen to nuance,” he said. “It’s been incredibly difficult to work past the noise.”
In May, a neighboring town, Garwood, became the first locality in the state to vote to reject the state education standards altogether after a board meeting at which some parents likened the instruction to child abuse.
Last month in Morris County, parts of which are within Mr. Malinowski’s district, the Republican-led board of commissioners passed a symbolic resolution asking the state to abolish the standards. And on Monday, Warren, N.J., a Somerset County township in the Seventh Congressional District, became the second school district in the state to indicate it would not implement the standards after a vote to adopt a new curriculum ended in a tie.
“The state’s extreme sex-education standards are just the latest example of their encroachment on what has traditionally been the purview of families,” one Warren board member, Daniel Croson, said in a statement after the vote.
Mr. Kean was scheduled to attend an event in Warren with Mr. Croson on Thursday.