MORE THAN 160,000 students attend New Hampshire public schools, representing more than 90% of families with school-age children. On average, these students perform among the best in the country, which says a lot when state funding of public schools is the lowest in the country. It also says a lot about public confidence and support for public schools when most school budgets are set by voters and most of the funding comes from local property taxes.
Unfortunately, with Commissioner Frank Edelblut at the helm of the New Hampshire Department of Education, public schools are in trouble. When Edelblut testified recently in the ConVal School District v. State of New Hampshire trial, he could not say whether public schools were meeting the state’s constitutional requirement to provide an “adequate” education. But when pressed on the issue, the commissioner proclaimed, without any facts to substantiate it, that alternatives to public schools, including the state’s new school voucher program, do provide an adequate education.
Edelblut’s testimony is deeply disturbing and underscores not only his bias against public schools, but also his complete lack of competence when it comes to his job and the department he leads.
In fact, state law requires the commissioner to determine if every public school provides an “adequate education” by looking at several factors, including student/teacher ratios, number of days or hours in the school year, and student performance, including statewide assessment tests.
In stark contrast to the accountability required for public schools, there is no way to tell whether any of the 3,200 students with a school voucher are being educated at all, let alone receiving an “adequate” education.
In a separate line of questioning, Edelblut stated that he did not know what it actually costs public schools to provide an adequate education, and he’s never studied the issue because the legislature never directed him to do that. But lack of legislative directive hasn’t stopped him from aggressively promoting alternatives to public schools during his tenure as commissioner.
Since being nominated by Governor Chris Sununu in 2017, Edelblut has taken every opportunity to divert public money away from public schools and introduced numerous taxpayer-funded alternatives with dubious educational value and zero accountability. Let’s start with the voucher program, euphemistically called “Education Freedom Accounts.”
Edelblut was the chief promoter of school vouchers despite strong public opposition. He made the case for vouchers based on helping students who did not have the resources to leave their public school and choose an alternative. Edelblut sold the story to the Republican-led legislature with the promise that it would cost the state $3.3 million and save local property taxpayers nearly $12 million, since they wouldn’t have to pay the local costs to educate students who left local public schools.
But it did not work out that way. Only about 100 students left public schools for a voucher, the cost of which has jumped to nearly $25 million while mostly paying for tuition and costs for students already attending private and home schools. So much for opening doors for low-income families.
There’s nothing “conservative” about Edelblut’s voucher program and it has turned out to be a boondoggle.
Other examples of Edelblut’s sustained attack on public schools include a $6-million contract with a company called Prenda to provide what essentially amounts to group homeschooling for 79 students and staffed by people who are not trained in instruction or in any subject matter and are not required to have criminal background checks.
The commissioner has advocated to eliminate arts and language courses, subject teachers to lawsuits, and even strip teachers of their credentials when they teach subjects relating to racism and genocide.
Numerous school board members and superintendents have expressed their lack of confidence in Edelblut’s leadership. Those who speak up about his bias against public schools may face a visit from state auditors, withholding of state funds, and rejection of grant applications.
Edelbut’s lack of candor and honesty in court, under oath, should be alarming to all of us. Does he know whether public schools provide an adequate education or not? Does he really think vouchers or Prenda pods meet the state’s constitutional obligation to provide an “adequate education” even without any accountability for how tax dollars are spent, no minimum standards, no measure of student performance, nor even a requirement for a student to receive any educational services at all?
New Hampshire is fortunate to have such strong public confidence and support for our public schools. It’s unacceptable the commissioner doesn’t feel the same way.
Rep. Mel Myler (D-Hopkinton) is the ranking Democrat on the House education committee. Rep. David Luneau (D-Hopkinton) serves on the House Education Committee and is a former chair of the Hopkinton School Board.
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