Student at FIRST Robotics competition

Ryugo Olada of Hollis/Brookline High School works on a robot in the FIRST Robotics competition in Dover in early April. Programs like FIRST would become eligible for high school graduation credit under a new program called Learn Everywhere approved by the state Board of Education on Thursday.

CONCORD — The state Board of Education on Thursday approved the “Learn Everywhere” initiative proposed by Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut to expand opportunities for high school graduation credit outside the traditional classroom.

The close 4-3 vote in favor of draft rules to implement the program reflected the divisions that marked a two-year debate among various stakeholders.

Supporters of the initiative, including Gov. Chris Sununu and the state’s Business and Industry Association, say it will bring statewide consistency to what is now a hodgepodge of extended learning opportunities with wide variation from district to district.

Opponents, including public school teachers and administrators, argued that local school districts should not be required to accept credit for high school graduation based on directives from the state Board of Education.

Under the proposed rules, for-profit and non-profit organizations wishing to offer credit under Learn Everywhere must apply to the state Board of Education, which would review the educational programs and maintain oversight.

All schools would be required to allow students to earn up to one-third of their graduation credits through the Learn Everywhere program. Schools would be allowed, but not required, to issue high school diplomas to students who earned all their credits through the Learn Everywhere program.

That means a school district at its discretion could issue a high school diploma to a student who never took classes at the local high school and was educated in programs over which the local school district had no control.

Called an ‘insult’

Megan Tuttle, president of the state’s largest teachers’ union, NEA-NH, described the vote as “insulting to education professionals across New Hampshire.”

“The Board of Education voted to no longer require state certification, student teaching, adherence to the state’s code of conduct or probationary periods to teach a high school class for a semester and award graduation credit,” she said.

“They instead will now rely solely on a vendor’s application describing their ‘demonstrated qualifications’ to grant them access to students and the ability to award credit that will appear on official student transcripts even if the standards set by the local school district have not been met.”

The program is also opposed by the state Association of Special Education Administrators; the School Boards Association; the School Administrators Association; and the Association of School Principals.

In addition to the BIA, supporters include many of the organizations whose educational programs could become eligible for high school graduation credit, including the Boys and Girls Club, FIRST Robotics, New England College, the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center and the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.

The program operators like the idea of one-stop shopping for statewide approval by the Board of Education, rather than trying to get approval for credit from more than 165 separate school districts.

Dueling legislation

The state Legislature with Republican majorities passed a bill in 2018 setting the stage for the program. SB 435 ordered the Board of Education to adopt rules for approving alternative programs for credits leading to graduation. The bill appeared non-controversial at the time, and passed both House and Senate on voice votes.

But as the rules were being developed, critics in the public education community complained that Edelblut was exceeding the authority granted in SB 435. The Democratic majority in the legislature this year passed another bill, SB 140, which requires approval by local school districts of credit-worthy programs.

SB 140 passed on a voice vote in the Senate, and cleared the House on May 23, in a party-line 224-146 vote, with only two Republicans in favor. The bill is now on Sununu’s desk, where a veto is likely from a governor committed to alternatives to public education or “school choice” programs.

“Learn Everywhere offers New Hampshire students a 21st Century educational system that extends well beyond the four walls of a classroom,” Sununu said.

“This program opens up a myriad of opportunities for students in New Hampshire to pursue educational paths that encourage their passion to learn and best fit their needs.”

The draft rules will now be sent to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, where opponents are expected to argue against approval.

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