Education commissioner Edelblut stands up for choice; critics say he is hurting public schoolsBy DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau
March 04. 2018 11:06PM
CONCORD — Commissioner Frank Edelblut has been a lightning rod for controversy from the moment he was nominated by Gov. Chris Sununu to lead the Department of Education.
Other than Sununu, he has the most prominent public profile of any leader in the Executive Branch. And that should come as no surprise. He came within 1,000 votes of beating Sununu for the 2016 GOP gubernatorial nomination, out of more than 100,000 votes cast in a four-way race.
During the primary campaign, Edelblut positioned himself as a grassroots social and fiscal conservative, who with his wife home-schooled his seven children. His nomination by Sununu drew howls of protests from Democrats and public education advocates, who saw his appointment as a way to promote the privatization of education at the expense of public schools.
The two Democrats on the five-member Executive Council voted against his nomination, and in early February took the unusual step of voting against a 6.5 percent pay raise from $93,800 to $99,900, claiming Edelblut had politicized the job and neglected public schools.
He’s the target of a Senate bill designed to forbid commissioners from engaging in any partisan political activity, co-sponsored by nine of 10 Senate Democrats.
For his part, Edelblut says his speaking engagements are nothing out of the ordinary, and the criticism of his tenure ignores many accomplishments in his first year.
“I don’t think the activities I’ve been engaged in are inappropriate. I think they’re essential in helping to move an education system forward,” he said in an interview. “There is change happening in education. It’s important during these times of change that I get out to as many groups as possible to explain what’s going on so they can be informed consumers and supporters of the education system in New Hampshire to help us move forward.”
State Board of Education Chairman Andrew Cline, appointed by Sununu last year, describes Edelblut as more of a technician/manager than an ideologue.
Cline is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank in Concord, and former opinion editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader. He and Edelblut weren’t acquainted before Cline’s appointment.
“In working with him, I’ve been impressed with his management style, his attention to detail and his openness to ideas,” Cline said.
He describes Edelbut, a CPA, business consultant and entrepreneur, as a creative and thoughtful leader who is “genuinely focused on making the Department of Education as efficient and effective an organization as it can be, so it can better serve the students of New Hampshire.”
Former Board of Education member Bill Duncan, whose term was not renewed by Sununu, has a decidedly different perspective. Duncan sued the state in an unsuccessful attempt to block a 2012 law that gave businesses a tax break if they donated to a scholarship fund for private school tuition.
Duncan maintains a website called Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.
“The Department of Education has changed in big and small ways under Mr. Edelblut’s leadership,” says Duncan. “Where the priority has always been helping the school districts serve their kids, the department now seems to be on a mission to make private schools and home schooling the preferred school choice.”
Duncan points to several examples. When the legislature authorized a new position to support charter schools, Edelblut advertised for a school choice advocate, until the Board of Education intervened.
Just last week, he sent a letter to the House Finance Committee, arguing against limits the committee is considering on a school choice proposal, SB 193, now working its way through the legislature.
“The department’s tenacious advocacy for private school choice puts our schools in a very vulnerable position,” says Duncan. “(Public Schools) will be on the defensive as long as this new department policy is in place.
Edelblut maintains he is not advocating for private schools, but is an unapologetic proponent for educational choice.
“I am an advocate for options in education for all students, and will remain so, only because I believe that each student is unique,” says Edelblut. “We need to create educational opportunities that are different for different students, so every student can get to the top of their game.”
Edelbut speaks highly of the state’s public school system, its teachers and administrators, and says he has spent countless hours in public and private schools since his appointment.
“The bulk of students are doing really well in the existing system,” he says. “It’s the students on the margin that we need to create opportunities for. We need to give them alternatives.”