NEW CASTLE — Bill Duncan could have done a lot of things when he retired in 2005, but he decided to become a leading advocate for public education in New Hampshire.
The successful businessman sold his Portsmouth-based software firm, with 30 employees, and created Defending New Hampshire Public Education. He became a major opponent of legislation that enabled businesses in the state to obtain tax credits for donations to nonprofits that provide private-school scholarships."I think public education is a precious asset, and it's under assault," he said. "What better thing can a person do with his time. Public education is very important, and in New Hampshire, we've got a great system worth defending."
In June, a Strafford County Superior Court judge ruled in Duncan v. State of New Hampshire that the tax-credit scholarship program was unconstitutional because it allowed scholarship funds to be given to students attending religious schools.
Duncan eventually changed the name of his organization to Advancing Public Education and at his own expense began to travel across the state, visiting public schools in 2013 to identify best practices in reaching low-income children with the goal of sharing the information statewide.
"As I did that, the opposition to Common Core emerged over the last six months, just as I was hearing from these schools on how well it was working," he said. "On the one hand, I would hear the opposition, but in the classrooms, I would be hearing rave reviews about how this was a lot of work, but we see the kids responding."
Encouraged by vote
Duncan says he has visited about 15 schools, including various elementary schools and the high school in the White Mountain Regional School District. His tour also took him to New Franklin Elementary School in Portsmouth and three schools in Manchester — Bakersville Elementary, Northwest Elementary and Henry J. McLaughlin Middle School.
"I have to say, honestly, among hundreds of teachers I have spoken to, I have never met one who has implemented the Common Core in English or math who is not a strong supporter of it and perfecting it in his or her classroom," he said.
Duncan was present when the Manchester Board of School Committee voted on Oct. 16 to adopt its own standards — standards that would be more rigorous than Common Core. Surprisingly, he found the meeting encouraging.
"If you look at what the mayor said, what the superintendent said and the resolution that was approved, the foundation for the Manchester standards will be the Common Core," he said. "Just like every other district, Manchester has the option of improving on them. That's what the superintendent is committed to doing, and that's what's happening."
The main question in Manchester revolves around standardized testing. State and federal law require the district to administer a standardized test to selected grades each year, and the New England Common Assessment Program, which was previously used, has been terminated by the six-state coalition in favor of the Smarter Balanced test, which is associated with Common Core.
Whether Manchester can identify an alternative test and obtain a waiver to administer that test instead of Smarter Balanced in 2015 remains to be seen. Duncan does not think it will even be an issue by the time 2015 rolls around.
"I humbly predict that Manchester will take the test in 2015 along with the rest of the state because there is literally no alternative," he said, "just as there was no alternative to the NECAPs."
Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas says there are alternatives, including the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Test or the California Achievement Test for elementary schools, while Grade 11 students could take the SAT or PSAT.
"There is discussion about using the SAT or PSAT in high school, which would have to be legislated," said Duncan. "But the discussion of Iowa, Stanford and all the rest is freelancing."
Duncan said the concerns about student privacy raised by opponents of the Smarter Balanced test are unfounded. State law prohibits the release of any personally identifiable information to any person or entity outside of New Hampshire, regardless of any weakening of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act alluded to by opponents.
"Our contract with outside testers says state law overrules FERPA or any other rule they may have," he said. "I think we are in good shape when it comes to privacy.
Smarter Balanced may prove to be more difficult and result in lower scores than its predecessor, the NECAPs, he said, but no one should compare the two.
"It doesn't test the same thing," he said. "The first year's results will be a new benchmark with no backward reference possible, so whatever number of kids are considered proficient, it's just a whole new starting point."