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January 14. 2013 9:19PM

Education group gives NH local control a failing grade

An education advocacy group that admits its report "does not assess student achievement, school quality or teacher performance," has given New Hampshire a failing grade for not adopting statewide educational policies to force local districts to improve the quality of public education.

StudentsFirst, an educational policy advocacy group created by former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, says New Hampshire ranks with states such as Montana and North Dakota at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to adopting policies that the group advocates.

"What we're trying to do is create awareness around the need for policy change," said Eric Lerum, StudentsFirst vice president of national policy. "Most people understand the local viewpoint and their own schools, but when we talk about how the policy may affect them, their eyes glaze over."

The organization's ratings are grouped into three general policy categories which, if implemented in New Hampshire, would see a shift in power over educational decisions from local districts to the state.

States would oversee teacher and principal evaluations, a program of parental empowerment and the way schools are governed.

The state would become more than a contributor to local school budgets in the StudentsFirst model.

"The fact that we spend a lot of money on education and yet don't get the results that we want is partly because the conversation is all on how much we spend," Lerum said.

In addition to policies that would give the state more control over local school districts, the changes would hit hard at subjects near and dear to teacher unions, such as the tenure system, seniority preference in layoffs, pensions and pay that is based on attainment of educational degrees and length of service.

"We fundamentally believe that the state has a role to play, so in terms of top-down versus local control, you have to strike a healthy balance," Lerum said. "But we can't leave all decision-making to the local district and expect that they will get to the right place."

To achieve a better score on the StudentsFirst report card, the state would have to assert more authority over local school boards.

Teacher, principal, school and district evaluations are a cornerstone of the policy changes the group wants to see.

Teacher evaluations should be "the driving factor in recruitment, placement, layoff, tenure and compensation decisions," the report said.

StudentsFirst also calls for the state to mandate A to F performance grades for schools and to require districts to tell parents when a child's teacher is considered to be "ineffective."

In the area of the governance of the schools, the group says if a city district isn't performing well, the mayor or the state should be able to take control from the school board.

It also wants the state to require districts to report how spending improves student performance. Greater flexibility for parents of students in poorly performing schools would mean increased access to charter schools.

New Hampshire gets a few points for its charter schools. StudentsFirst says the program should be expanded and an oversight function created at the state level.

"If parents chose to send kids to another school we need to have the resources follow the child," Lerum said. "The money that states provide for schools and the money that you raise through taxes is there for the child."

Other policy changes are aimed at rewarding good teachers and creating the opportunity for talented people to join the profession.

To do that, StudentsFirst would have the states legislate a merit pay plan for teachers and replace traditional defined benefit pensions with a portable plan, such as a 401(k), to attract higher caliber employees.

"You have to start at the bottom and work 10 to 15 years to get what you are worth," he said. "If you are doing a great job, you should be rewarded."

Some of the proposed policy changes may conflict with the centuries old New Hampshire tradition of local control over local matters.

Calls for budget transparency come in a state at which voters can, and do, question the effectiveness of school expenditures at town meetings.

The desire to vest mayors with more control over education would have a very narrow focus in a state with more than 90 school districts but only 13 cities.

But Lerum said state governments may be in the best position to force policy changes that would mean improvement in public education.

"They can set a high bar and say what it means to hold schools accountable," he said.

wsmith@unionleader.com

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