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‘Choice for Me, But Not for Thee’? NHDems Oppose EFAs, Send Kids to Elite Private Schools

State Sen. Tom Sherman is running for governor as a self-declared champion of public schools and opponent of school choice. He opposes allowing low-income families to use public money to choose a private school education for their children.

Perhaps the same private school Sherman chooses for his son.

While Sherman says he is a proponent of public school education, he sent his son to the Governor’s Academy in Newbury, Mass., a private school with tuition approaching $70,000 per year, GOP activist Patrick Hynes reported in his Union-Leader column on Sunday.

“The Shermans are a family of considerable financial means and are free to send their kids to whatever schools they want. EFA supporters are merely asking for low- and middle-income families who aren’t as wealthy as the Shermans to be able to do the same,” Hynes wrote.

Sherman doesn’t agree. He voted against the Education Freedom Account law passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Chris Sununu. It allows low and middle-income families to use their child’s share of state funding  — not local money–  to choose an alternative to their local public school. That could be a private school, a parochial school, homeschooling, or a public school outside their district.

“My first choice would be to stop the program,” Sherman said of the EFA system at a recent debate with Republican Sununu. Sherman has also proposed an annual means test so that if a family’s income one year exceeds the current limit (300 percent of the poverty level), even temporarily, their children would be kicked out of the program.

“Tom Sherman is a school choice hypocrite,” says Corey DeAngelis with the Educational Freedom Institute. “He sent his kid to a private school yet opposes school choice for others. I’m glad his family had that opportunity, but he shouldn’t fight to trap low-income kids in failing government schools.

“Marie Antoinette would be proud of Sen. Sherman, because these school choice hypocrites are essentially saying, ‘Let them eat cake!'” DeAngelis added.

Asked about the allegation of hypocrisy, Sherman declined to respond.

When it comes to opposing EFAs while opting out of public schools, Sherman is hardly alone.

Progressive Rep. Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham) who is currently running for Sherman’s seat in the state Senate, is a staunch opponent of the EFA program, supporting complete repeal.

“Implemented by Republican free staters–and millions of dollars over budget–the school voucher program drains public school funding and threatens an increase in local property taxes,” Altschiller states on her campaign website. But her children have attended elite Phillips Exeter Academy, with $50,000 a year tuition bills, and Berwick Academy, a more affordable $30,000 per year.

Altschiller is also factually incorrect about the EFA program’s impact on local taxes. Because EFA’s only use the state portion of a student’s funding, when students opt out of the local school, the local funding still flows to the classrooms they left behind. As a result, per capita revenue for local schools actually increases when students choose the EFA option.

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua has also pledged to repeal the EFA program if possible, while sending her son to Groton School, a private boarding school in Massachusetts that currently charges close to $60,000 a year.

Rep. Mel Myler is the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee and a vocal opponent of parental choice. But when NHJournal contacted him about sending a child to Holderness Academy (boarding tuition: $71,000) Myler declined to comment.

And there’s Rep. Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsborough, who complained this year that advocates wanted to make EFA’s more accessible to New Hampshire families.

“They try to sell them as helping poor kids have choices too, but they have brought several bills forward to raise the income cap to five hundred percent of poverty level, or to eliminate it altogether, making me wonder how a family of four earning $132,000/yr. can be considered poor,” she wrote.

But while speaking out against EFA’s this year, Porter admitted she sent her child to a private school because the public schools weren’t working for her family when he son experienced difficulties.

“I certainly understand the need for families to find an alternative to public schools to meet the needs of their children,” Porter testified. “My own two children attended the same public school where I taught. My daughter was fine with it, but not so my son. He was experiencing difficulties, so we sent him to a local private school until he was middle school age.

“It was good that we had that option,” Porter said.

Not all Democrats believe their position is problematic. “I opposed the EFA vouchers too & I myself actually went to a private school,” Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D-Durham) tweeted, unprompted.

Meanwhile, New Hampshire families are flocking to the program with 3,025 participating this year, up from 1,572 last year. According to NH Bulletin’s Ethan DeWitt, ​​1,504 out of the 3,025 are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, meaning 49.7 percent come from households making below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. 

“You’d think the party preaching about equity would be in favor of expanding educational opportunities for all students,” DeAngelis said. “The problem is opposition to parental rights in education is about politics and power, not morality or logic. That’s why 99.99 percent of Randi Weingarten’s teachers union’s campaign contributions have gone to Democrats in 2022.

“But now there’s a new special interest group in town – parents – and they aren’t going away any time soon.”

SCOTUS Ruling on Religious Ed Funding Affirms NH School Choice Approach

The U.S. Supreme Court is catching up to New Hampshire’s parental-rights approach to education, affirming that parents who use publicly-funded choice programs are free to choose religious schools.

In a 6-3 ruling released Tuesday, the court found Carson v. Makin that First Amendment protections for religious expression prohibit the government from discriminating against religious schools when states offer a school choice program to parents.

Maine has many rural communities — encompassing almost half of all the state’s 260 school districts — that cannot afford to support a middle school or high school. The state has long offered families tuition assistance so they can access education services for their children. But in 1981, Maine passed a law preventing parents from choosing a religious school.

The Supreme Court found that prohibition was unconstitutional.

“The State pays tuition for certain students at private schools—so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority.

While Tuesday’s ruling is a big change for some 18 states with similar bans, New Hampshire is at the forefront of school choice religious freedom. New Hampshire’s tuition assistance programs, and Education Freedom Accounts (EFAs) can be used for any school, including religious schools.

“New Hampshire has no religious test for tuition aid or EFAs, so the ruling confirms New Hampshire’s position as correct,” said Drew Cline, chair of the state Board of Education.

According to Andrew Wimer with the Institute for Justice, New Hampshire changed its laws on tuition assistance last summer. Wimer said the ruling strengthens New Hampshire’s religious freedom against any future attack.

“Today’s ruling does not change anything in New Hampshire, but does ensure that if a future legislature were to put the same restrictions back in place it would likely be found unconstitutional,” he said.

The law change came after the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Croydon couple Dennis and Cathy Griffin who wanted to send their grandson to a private Catholic school, Mount Royal Academy.

“We are happy the legislature did the right thing in removing politics from school funding by allowing individual choice on how our tax dollars are applied to our children’s education,” said Dennis Griffin said last year. “Cathy and I feel Mount Royal Academy is the best choice for our grandson’s education and the government should not be restricting the use of our tax dollars from funding our choice.”

Croydon, a town of about 700 people, does not operate a middle school, instead giving families tuition money they can use to send their child to a school in another district. But Croydon’s School Board refused to give the family the money because Mount Royal is Catholic, and New Hampshire at the time still had an anti-Catholic law on the books

Most of the laws prohibiting states from using public money for private religious schools come from a anti-Catholic movement started in the 1870s by U.S. Rep. James Blaine, a powerful Republican from Maine. Blaine’s response to the immigration of Catholic and Jewish families from Europe was to endorse a nativist movement to make sure the immigrant schools would not get any funding.

At the time, many public schools taught a form of Protestant Christianity.

New Hampshire’s Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut applauded the ruling, saying it affirms New Hampshire in its commitment to religious freedom.

“Schools of all kinds – public, non-public, religious or non-religious – have the distinct duty and ultimate responsibility to provide the best education possible for their students. This Supreme Court ruling clarifies what has always been so — that we do not discriminate against anyone, period. This ruling will ensure that school choice remains an opportunity for every student throughout the nation, and that there will be equality available among all educational institutions. There is no place for discrimination here in New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire Democrats were largely silent on the decision, with no member of the state’s federal delegation making any mention of it. They also declined to respond to requests for comment.

Granite State Democrats have long opposed school choice, especially the funding for parents who want to send their children to religious schools. During the debate over EFAs last year, state Sen. Tom Sherman (D-Rye) complained, “There’s just no accountability to property taxpayers whose money is being used for private, religious and home school.” 

Sherman is now the Democratic nominee for governor.

Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) specifically cited the anti-Catholic “Blaine Amendment” language in the state constitution in her opposition to the EFA program.

“The New Hampshire Constitution prohibits taxpayer dollars from being directed to private or religious schools. Now more than ever, when legislators on both sides of the aisle have identified property taxpayer relief as a priority, it is difficult to understand why we would remove safeguards for the use of taxpayer dollars and ask hardworking Granite Staters to pay for the private education of other children and families.”

And former state Rep. Tamara Meyer Le (D-North Hampton) was removed from the House Education Committee in 2019 after a profanity-laced social media rant against private and religious education. “F*** private and religious schools,” Le wrote.

Families, Students Push Back on Efforts to Repeal EFAs

New Hampshire parents and students crowded the State House Tuesday to testify against Democratic Sen. Jay Kahn’s bill to repeal the state’s Education Freedom Accounts.

“I implore you, do not eliminate the Education Freedom Accounts, this program helps so many students and their families,” said Emma Jackson, a sophomore at Holy Family Academy in Manchester. 

Jackson, like many students who testified, has been able to go to a private school for the first time thanks to the EFA’s. The program “funds students instead of systems,” as school choice advocate Corey DeAngelis of the American Federation for Children puts it. The state’s share of a child’s public school funding follows the student to other education options like private or home schooling.

The program, in its first year, has more than 1,600 participants.

“Currently, most of the families that are using the Education Freedom Accounts are low-income families,” said Kate Baker Demers, executive director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund of New Hampshire.

Baker Demers said low-income families have struggled for years to get their children into schools where they can learn. They have also struggled to get their children the right education materials. Now they have the freedom to make the best choices for their families, she said.

“The families that are using them are extremely grateful and think it is right and just that they have access to their education funding,” she said.

Kahn, a Keene Democrat, is concerned that the success of the program will spell trouble for taxpayers down the road. He said the program is costing more than $8 million this year and is expected to double next year. On top of that, Kahn said, the state has cut funding for public education by more than $80 million in the current two-year budget. 

“Every child deserves access to an adequate education, but this isn’t the way to do it,” Kahn said.

Meanwhile, per pupil spending on k-12 education has risen during Gov. Chris Sununu’s administration to the highest level ever.

New Hampshire’s public schools lost more than 8,000 students in the last year as more parents grew frustrated with COVID-19 imposed-remote learning, among other problems. Baker Demers said parents realized during the pandemic that there are more options than their local public schools that fit their family needs better, and those options were finally within reach.

“They didn’t have these options without the EFAs,” she said.

Some Democrats opposed to EFA’s, like Rep. Marjorie Porter (D-Hillsborough) send their own children to private schools while opposing allowing state funding to follow low-income kids to these same schools.

“I certainly understand the need for families to find an alternative to public schools to meet the needs of their children,” Porter testified. “My own two children attended the same public school where I taught. My daughter was fine with it, but not so my son. He was experiencing difficulties, so we sent him to a local private school until he was middle school age. It was good that we had that option.”

Porter has filed a bill in the House to prevent local property taxes from going to religious schools, harkening back to 1870s efforts to stop Catholic schools from receiving public funding. A 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found a state cannot prevent money from going to religious schools if it offers parents grants for education. 

Rep. Rosemarie Rung (D-Merrimack) mocked families who need the grants on Twitter, calling EFA’s handouts.

“My parents sent all 4 of their kids to Catholic school on a USAF officer salary and they would never, ever expect a government handout to do so,” Rung wrote on Twitter.

Baker Demers said low-income families deserve equal opportunities when it comes to education, and EFAs provide those opportunities.

“That’s the point, to overcome those inequalities,” she said.

“These are students who struggled in their old learning environment for a variety of reasons from bullying, learning difficulties, or health concerns,” said Sarah Scott from Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire. AFP-NH was heavily involved in the passage of EFAs and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation spent last summer spreading awareness of the new program to parents.

Families, Scott says, “are ecstatic to have been given the chance to have their children learn in a setting that helps them to thrive.”

Kahn said EFA’s downshift costs for public education onto local property taxpayers, an assertion advocates deny. Sen. Denise Ricciardi (R-Bedford) said the tax money is following the child through the system, and it will not result in higher taxes.

That is true in part because, while state funding follows the student, local funding remains in the schools. As a result, every student who uses an EFA leaves behind around $10,000 or more for their former school to spend on the remaining students. More money, but fewer students.

Regardless of the math or the praise of parents, the state’s teachers unions still oppose the EFA program.

This is a multi-million-dollar example of failed leadership that will ultimately hurt our kids,” said Meg Tuttle, president of the NEA-NH, the state’s largest teachers union. 

Tuttle did not elaborate on how families choosing what they believe are better education choices for their children “will hurt kids.”

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) was a  prime sponsor of the legislation creating EFA’s last year. He made it clear this week he will fight to keep the program operating.

“Our Education Freedom Accounts have proven to be more successful than anyone imagined. Currently, 1,635 students are enrolled in the EFA program, giving working families the power to choose the best educational path for them,” Bradley said. “The pandemic has shown us the need for greater educational options, especially for families who traditionally could not afford the choices wealthier families have always had.  EFA’s provide that pathway. Students of hard-working families of modest means deserve the opportunity for education choices that best suit their needs.” 

Unmasked Middle Schoolers Face Detention in Derry

Parents of West Running Brook Middle School students in Derry are being warned that children who do not wear “properly-fitted masks” will be sent to special detention sessions, according to an email obtained by New Hampshire Journal.

Principal Justin Krieger recently wrote to parents that the need for well-fitted masks is required for all activities in the building. Students who fail to comply will be punished.

“Students who are unable to wear a properly-fitted mask despite encouragement, prompts, and support from staff will be assigned an after-school detention on Friday (2:00-2:30 p.m.) of each week,” Krieger wrote.

The purpose of the detention is not to punish the students, he explained, but instead to educate the middle schoolers on the importance of wearing masks.

“We will use this time in concert with our school nurse to provide more education for students to stress the importance of compliance,” Krieger wrote.

Krieger did not respond to a call on Monday from New Hampshire Journal. Derry Cooperative School Board Chair Erika Cohen did not answer questions on Monday about whether or not the board agreed with Krieger’s policy. 

“This was a school-based decision. The school board was not involved,” Cohen wrote in an email.

Krieger wrote in the email to parents that the special detention will be dedicated to “education.”

“Students deserve to understand the ‘why’ of mask-wearing and we intend to dedicate all this time to that end,” he wrote.

The new policy is not intended to punish students who occasionally have their masks below their noses, but it is aimed at students who “chronically” fail to wear their masks properly, he wrote.

State Rep. David Love, R-Derry, said Kieger is in the wrong with the new detention policy. As far as Love is concerned, masks don’t work.

“I think he’s stepping way out of bounds. I don’t know where this is all going to end. Masks, they don’t work. People have been wearing masks and getting vaccines and the vaccinated and masked are still getting COVID,” Love said.

Love has introduced a bill that would allow parents of students in a school that requires masks to transfer to another school at no expense to the family.

“The bottom line is the schools are going to do as they damn well please until we hit them in the pocketbook,” Love said. 

While Rockingham County is seeing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, the middle school does not appear to be overrun with cases, according to the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 dashboard.

As of Jan. 21, the latest reporting date available, West Running Brook had two active cases in the school community. The state dashboard does not distinguish between student cases and staff cases, so it is not clear if those infected are children or adults. The dashboard indicates there are no current outbreaks or clusters within the West Running Brook community. 

While there is no statewide mask mandate, schools, municipalities, and businesses are free to craft their own policies. Most schools in the state have been requiring the use of masks indoors since late fall, according to WMUR’s list of more than 400 school mask decisions.

The need for masks may start to change quickly, as many health experts expect the Omicron variant to peak in the coming weeks. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner, said this week on “Face the Nation ” that it is too soon to get rid of masks in schools, but that could change rapidly.

“I think it is too soon to do that because a lot of schools have built their preparations around the use of masks and whatever we want to say about the benefit that masks are providing, it’s providing some benefit,” Gottlieb said. “So, to withdraw it right at the peak of the epidemic, I think it’s imprudent. We should wait. I think within two weeks we’ll be able to make that decision.”

Moms for Liberty ‘Bounty’ Offer Adds to CRT Tensions

The New Hampshire branch of Moms For Liberty says it hasn’t paid out any bounties on teachers violating the state’s new anti-discrimination law — yet.

But the group’s leader Rachel Goldsmith hopes to soon.

“We’ve received multiple reports, but won’t be administrating the incentive until we’ve allowed the state to perform due diligence on each report,” Goldsmith said. 

Due diligence is precisely what is behind the new website, set up by the state Department of Education and Commission on Human Rights, for parents to report concerns they have about teachers or administrators discriminating against their children. The new state law prohibits public employees from teaching or training that “an individual, by virtue of his or her age, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, creed, color, marital status, familial status, mental or physical disability, religion, or national origin is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

The law’s goal is to protect students and government employees from the race-based ideology inspired by Critical Race Theory that has made its way into some New Hampshire schools. Manchester, Litchfield, and Laconia have all been caught with content promoting the view that all White people are advancing “white supremacy” and benefit from “white privilege.”

New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut says violations will ultimately be adjudicated by the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission, adding the website is designed to make sure everyone’s rights are respected.

“The benefit of setting out that process is to protect the due process rights of our educators and our students,” Edleblut said in the Jack Heath radio show.

But the Hillsborough Moms For Liberty isn’t waiting for adjudication. It announced a $500 bounty last week for the first person to report an instance of a teacher violating the state’s new anti-discrimination law.

Goldsmith said if public schools had been doing the job in the first place, none of this would be necessary.

“We are parents tired of public school systems failing our children. This incentive will encourage teachers, parents, and students to find and replace bad curriculum. We just want the school boards and teachers unions to stop pushing alphabet soup (CRT/DEI/SEL) and start teaching kids to read. Manchester SD is graduating only 20 percent of kids reading at grade level,” Goldsmith said.

Edelblut did not respond to NH Journal’s question about whether he supports the bounties, but Edelblut said on the radio interview the website and the process of bringing cases to the Human Rights Commission are ways to eliminate mob action. 

“This way we don’t leave it up to social media,” he said.

Goldsmith said the bounties in no way impede the state process.

“No aspect of this compromises that due process,” Goldsmith said. “We look forward to working with the NH Department of Education and Commissioner Edelblut.”

None of the complaints will be handled by Edelblut or the Department of Education.

Gov. Chris Sununu is squarely against the bounty program. Spokesman Ben Vihstadt said, “The governor condemns the tweet referencing ‘bounties’ and any sort of financial incentive is wholly inappropriate and has no place.”

The heads of New Hampshire’s two teachers unions blasted Edelblut over the website, accusing it of dangerous vigilantism. 

“Totally innocent teachers could lose their teaching license over claims that are not backed up by any evidence. Edelblut has declared a war on teachers, a war that the overwhelming majority of N.H. parents will find repulsive,” AFT-New Hampshire President Deb Howes said.

Meg Tuttle, president of the NEA-NH, called for Sununu to denounce Edelblut over the website.

“Politicians like Commissioner Edelblut are using the dog whistle strategy of distraction, division, and intimidation in their efforts to dictate what teachers say and block kids from learning our shared stories of confronting injustice to build a more perfect union,” Tuttle said.

Edelblut is likely to announce his decision on whether he’s running for U.S. Senate against Democrat Maggie Hassan in the coming weeks. Edelblut has staked out a pro-parent profile in his time as commissioner. He shepherded the state’s Education Freedom Account school choice program, and he expanded learning opportunities outside the classroom. He said parental power in education will be a key part of New Hampshire’s political debate in the coming months.

“Parents should have the primary role in the education of their children. That’s an important part of any election,” he said. “We need to stay involved and make sure parents have a voice.”

State Sen. Chuck Morse, another Republican who might look at the Senate race, came out strongly in favor of parents in a recent Union Leader editorial.

“Parents have the power to bring about political change. Politicians ignore them at their peril,” Morse wrote. “In New Hampshire, Republicans at the Statehouse have been listening to parents and empowering them to be more involved in their children’s education.”

Morse was not available on Wednesday to talk bounties.

The pro-parent message already proved a winner in the Virginia gubernatorial race as pro-school choice Republican Glenn Younking beat the favored Democrat Terry McAullife after McAullife committed a gaffe on the camping trial by saying, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

School Vouchers vs. ESA: The School Choice Debate in NH Heats Up

Education Freedom Accounts Serve the Public Good

The House Education Committee heard testimony on a Senate bill Tuesday that would establish “education freedom savings accounts” for students in the state. Emotions ran high during the crowded hearing in what has been a battle of school choice advocates versus supporters of public schools. Yet, the terms “school vouchers” and “education savings accounts” (ESA) haven often been thrown around synonymously at the New Hampshire State House, resulting in misinformation being spread around about Senate Bill 193.

The bill would allow parents of students between the ages of 5 and 20 to work with an approved scholarship organization to receive 90 percent of the per-pupil state grant funds (approximately $3,500) to be used to cover tuition or other costs at a school of the family’s choice. The family can use the funds to pay for private school tuition — including religious schools — homeschooling expenses, and other academic expenses. The bill passed the Senate on a 14-9 vote in March.

Opponents of the bill claim the ESA would take funding away from public schools that need it most, since students from underfunded or struggling school districts would most likely take advantage of the program. The critics also said the program would unconstitutionally provide taxpayer dollars to religious schools.

Supporters argue the bill would give parents more options for their students, since they know what’s best for their own children. They also claim that by granting parents alternatives to public schools, it would create competition and encourage public schools to increase their performance.

“The American education system has substantially failed to produce what they’re charging for,” said bill sponsor Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, at the hearing.

“It is trying to resolve the problem of having the most expensive education system in the world, and not having the best prepared students in the world,” he added. “The argument we hear is, if we take all this money from our public schools – and this is what our public school administrators tell us – they tell us they won’t know what to do.”

Yet, several opponents of the bill have been using the terms ESA and school vouchers interchangeably to describe what the legislation would do.

The state’s largest teacher union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT-NH), has also been telling its supporters that the ESA bill is code for a school voucher program.

“SB 193 is a voucher bill under the guise of ‘Education Freedom Savings Accounts,'” they wrote on their website.

Voucher programs and education savings accounts are similar, but not identical. However, the distinction between them is often muddled by politically-loaded terms. A state school voucher program grants parents a credit for a certain tuition value that they can use to enroll their child in a private school

ESAs are similar, but offer more flexibility to the parents. When parents get an ESA, they are awarded a yearly sum that can be mixed and matched to suit their children’s educational needs. The funds can be used all for private school tuition, like a voucher, or they can split it among many education opportunities like private tutoring, textbooks, and even saving for college.

The AFT-NH encouraged their supporters to fill out a robo-petition that would be sent to lawmakers encouraging them to vote “no” on SB 193 and creating ESA for students.

“Despite being labeled an ‘Education Freedom Savings Account,’ make no mistake this is a voucher bill which will directly take taxpayer dollars intended for our public schools and divert to private and other institutions,” the petition website states.

House Education Committee Chairman Rick Ladd, R-Haverhill, said his panel would likely vote on the bill at the end of the month. The committee has until April 26 to act on this legislation, at which point, it would probably go to the House Finance Committee before reaching the House floor for a vote.

Due to Republicans holding a slight majority in the House, it’s likely the bill will pass committee. What ultimately happens when it comes to a floor vote in the full House is anyone’s guess.

A recent survey from Citizens Count, NH’s Live Free or Die Alliance found 54 percent of respondents were opposed to “granting parents a portion of state funds to pay educational expenses for private or home-schooled students” and 46 percent supported the measure.

The bill has even grabbed the attention of former Republican presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who wrote a Monday op-ed in the New Hampshire Union Leader expressing his support of the ESA bill.

“Empowering parents with the freedom to choose encourages positive change because the right to educate their children no longer can be taken for granted,” Bush wrote. “It must be earned. I commend Sen. John Reagan and Rep. Joseph Pitre for introducing this legislation, and Gov. Chris Sununu, who has been a passionate advocate for school choice.”

There are still some questions to be answered and changes the bill needs before the House votes on it. House Finance Committee Chairman Neal Kurk, R-Weare, said he supports the bill, but the question over funds going to religious schools would need to be addressed. The state constitution expressly forbids taxpayer funds going to religious schools.

Anne Edwards, an attorney with the state’s attorney’s office, warned lawmakers at the Tuesday hearing that if they don’t tweak the bill in regards to the religious school issue, the state could face legal and constitutional challenges.

However, Kate Baker, director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, said legislators shouldn’t let the threat of litigation stop them from passing the bill.

“I believe this will be in the courts, no matter what you do,” she said. “Parents want to go to court and fight for their right to make these choices for their children.”

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How Do Hassan, Shaheen Stack Up to Their Own Criticisms of Betsy DeVos?

Some local headlines of the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing showed Sen. Maggie Hassan making her mark early in her first term.

Hassan emerges as fierce critic of Trump’s Cabinet nominees,” reads an article from the Associated Press. Hassan’s questioning of President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education earned her 15 minutes in the national spotlight after she hammered DeVos on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and school vouchers.

But a look at Hassan’s record shows she has taken advantage of school choice, despite questioning DeVos about it.

Hassan sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) and voted against DeVos’s nomination on Tuesday in a committee vote. The freshman senator, whose son has cerebral palsy, is an expert on public education for students with disabilities. Her son, Ben, went to public high school.

But DeVos has received a significant amount of criticism from Senate Democrats and the media due to her lack of experience in the public school system and for being in favor of school choice and school vouchers. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are also against her nomination.

However, six of the 10 Senate Democrats on the HELP committee attended private or parochial schools, or have children and grandchildren attending them, according to information obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation Investigative Group.

Sens. Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Michael Bennet of Colorado sit on the committee and have never attended public school, according to the investigation.

For Hassan, her husband Tom, served as the principal of the elite Phillips Exeter Academy, where their daughter, Margaret, attended, as well. Tom was censured last year for failing to disclose sexual misconduct charges against a faculty member.

Hassan received approximately $10,000 from the NEA during her Senate campaign and the union also spent $1.5 million against her opponent, incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. AFT also spent $4,400 against Ayotte.

“It’s just bizarre to see people who have exercised those school options suggesting that it’s somehow problematic or malicious to extend those options to all families,” said Frederick Hess, executive editor of Education Next, to the Daily Caller.

Hassan’s record on school choice is also revealing. While she was a supporter of public charter schools as governor, she did veto a bill that would enable small school districts to pay tuition, at public or private schools, for students of any grade level if it is not available within their resident district.

On a recent interview with NPR, Hassan reiterated her support for charter schools, but she took issue with DeVos position of a voucher system.

“I am a proud supporter of public charter schools here in New Hampshire, as well,” she said. “But there is a real difference between public charter schools, which can be established working with local communities and educators to fill a particular need in the public school system and provide more alternatives and more choice for learning styles and families – than a voucher system, which diverts money from the public school system, generally and often doesn’t cover the full cost of the private school that the student is attending.”

During DeVos’s confirmation hearing, Hassan also questioned her on her role in her family’s foundation, the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation. While it’s being debated if DeVos was accurate with statements during the hearing about having a role or not, she is also being charged that she and her family have donated extensively to groups which promote the idea that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students must undergo “conversion therapy.”

The claim comes from Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., who cites their large donations to the Focus on the Family group as evidence. Politifact found his claim to be “Mostly False” saying they found indications that the group supports conversion therapy, but there was no evidence that they believe that LGBT students must undergo it.

A recent report by The New York Times, highlights another side of DeVos not seen in public. She has supported her gay friends and advocated for LGBT rights as far back as the 1990s. This shows her coming out in support significantly earlier than a lot of Democrats who are questioning her on these beliefs.

“At that time, two colleagues recalled, she made accommodations for a transgender woman to use the women’s restroom at a Michigan Republican Party call center,” the article states. She also used her political connections to help persuade other Michigan Republicans to sign a brief urging the Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage in 2015, though she did not sign it herself.”

“This aspect of Ms. DeVos’s personal story is not only at odds with the public image of her and her family as prominent financiers of conservative causes, but it also stands out in a nascent administration with a number of members who have a history of opposing gay rights,” the report continued.

Hassan has been a champion for LGBT rights in New Hampshire, dating back to her time in the state Legislature. In June 2016, she issued an executive order that banned discrimination in state government based on gender identity.  

However, her colleague, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, hasn’t always been supportive of LGBT rights. Shaheen has announced that she will vote “no” on DeVos’s nomination.

As governor, Shaheen initially opposed same-sex marriage. After Vermont signed into law a “civil union” bill in 2000, Shaheen said she didn’t support it.

“I believe that marital unions should exist between men and women,” she said at the time.

However, she came out in favor of marriage for same-sex couples in 2009 and became a sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act in the U.S. Senate. She also voted in favor of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military and supported government recognition of same-sex spouses of military members and other government personnel.

Although Hassan and Shaheen didn’t mention DeVos’s stance on LGBT student rights when they said they wouldn’t vote in favor of her nomination, it is interesting to note the differences in time of support between them of LGBT causes.

Shaheen agrees with Hassan, saying that DeVos is “unqualified” to be the next secretary of education. The full Senate is expected to vote on DeVos’s nomination on Thursday.

The Similarities Between Frank Edelblut, Betsy DeVos Are Not Surprising

During the seven-hour hearing for Frank Edelblut’s nomination as the state education commissioner, there were several comparisons of the former state representative to Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education.

Both DeVos and Edelblut have little experience with the public school system. They are both strong supporters of school choice.

While Edelblut is a product of public schools himself, he and his wife homeschooled their seven children. Edelblut did receive his bachelor’s degree in business at a public institution, the University of Rhode Island, and eventually received a master’s in theological studies at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

Since 2009, Edelblut has served on the board of the Patrick Henry College Foundation, which is partnered with the evangelical Christian college in Virginia. This affiliation became a contentious point during his hearing between Edelblut and Democratic Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord. According to the college website, affiliates of the school must attest to a “Statement of Biblical Worldview” and follow “God’s Creative Works,” which is the belief that God created humanity and started with Adam and Eve as the basis for human ancestry.

“You will be the chief educator to whom all of the science teachers in our state will report,” Volinsky said. “Do you subscribe to this such that the science teachers need to worry about whether you will require creationism to be taught alongside evolution?”

Edelblut said he believes “there are other understandings of human origins.”

“And finally, as the commissioner of education, I will not have jurisdiction or responsibility for the development of curricula,” he said. “That I believe remains in the domain of the science teachers and the local school boards.”

And that’s where advocates for Edelblut believe that his lack of public education experience could be one of his biggest strengths.

With Gov. Chris Sununu’s nomination of his former Republican gubernatorial primary rival (Edelblut came in a close second, only losing by about 800 votes), it signals a departure from previous state education commissioners, who all had some sort of public education experience. It was a point Volinsky wanted to make, by reading the resumes of every education commissioner for the past 40 years.

But Sununu doesn’t want another career educator in the driver’s seat. He wants Edelblut, a businessman, to be in charge of this billion dollar industry. Many opponents don’t like that he’s against Common Core and is pro-charter schools. And they say he’s looking to “destroy public education.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “I want to see public education work well for all students. My job will be to implement the policies of the state board of education.”

The state board of education sets policy, curriculum, and standards for the public schools in the state. While the state education commissioner plays a role in the process, it’s ultimately not up to him to make those decisions.

Edelblut said he supported outgoing education commissioner Virginia Barry’s focus on “personalized learning.”

“Home education is personalized learning,” he said. “It recognizes that each individual student is unique, that they develop differently and at different paces.”

The same sentiments could be found in DeVos’s confirmation hearing earlier this month.

“Parents no longer believe that a one-size-fits-all model of learning meets the needs of every child,” she told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “And they know other options exist, whether magnet, virtual, charter, home, faith-based or any other combination.”

DeVos attended a private high school in Michigan and also received a bachelor’s in business from Calvin College. Her four children all went to private school and although she has never worked in a school, she is very philanthropic toward school systems that she personally supports. She backs school choice and school vouchers, allowing students to attend private schools with taxpayer support.

DeVos has been one of the most contentious cabinet nominees for Trump. But it can be argued that Trump and Sununu are looking at education in a similar manner. Trump sees DeVos as a strong advocate for school choice and able to use the budget for the education department to make education better for all students.

Both DeVos and Edelblut don’t necessarily have that much power when it comes to changing policy in the positions they will likely hold. They help set the agenda, but ultimately, any changes go through Congress and the states, and in New Hampshire, that means through the state board of education and the Legislature.

It’s no surprise that Trump and Sununu are facing a lot pushback on their respective nominees for education. After all, Sununu was one of Trump’s supporters during the presidential race, his support never wavering. But many supporters of the two politicians appreciate the comparison of Edelblut and DeVos. They both symbolize change and a departure from the Democratic “status-quo,” they have felt for the past eight years in D.C. and 12 years in the Granite State.

The people of New Hampshire should expect more similarities between the federal government and New Hampshire (or with Sununu and Trump) to pop up during the next two years.

 

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The Top 3 School Choice Issues To Watch In The NH Legislature

Not only is it National School Choice Week, it’s also New Hampshire School Choice Week. Gov. Chris Sununu signed the proclamation on Tuesday. So naturally, the discussion of school choice in the Granite State is bound to come up. And the Legislature has a slew of bills related to charter schools, public versus private schools, and parent involvement in their children’s education.

With a Republican-controlled State House, expect to see several school choice bills make it through and end up on the governor’s desk. Education reform is definitely a priority for the Sununu administration.

“We’re not trying to blow up education, or battle public education,” he said at an event for National School Choice Week in Manchester on Tuesday. “I love public education. It’s just about actually taking the system that we have, the fundamental structure that we have — and it’s not bad; it’s a good structure — but providing some leadership to really implement those innovations that we always talk about.”

Here are NH Journal’s top school choice issues to keep an eye on at the State House as lawmakers begin to debate these bills:

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS

There are about 10 bills dealing with charter schools, which is still a contentious topic in the world of education. Here’s a quick run-down of what they are:

  • Charter schools are publicly-funded independent schools that are not subject to the same regulations as traditional public schools.
  • They do not charge tuition.
  • They must accept all students who apply, but if the number of applications exceeds the school’s capacity, a lottery must be held to select students who will be offered a place.
  • They are considered part of the state school system and are accountable to state and federal authorities for compliance with the terms of their founding charter, which often includes achievement-based standards (read: testing).
  • All charter schools must apply for authorization and receive approval from a local school district, a town vote, or the state board of education. Charters are valid for a term of five years, at which point a school must apply for renewal.

There are currently 25 charter schools operating in New Hampshire, with another one slated to open in fall 2017, according to data from the NH Department of Education. There were 3,011 students enrolled in charter schools, or about 1 percent of the state’s total student population, as of October 1, 2015.

Most charter schools receive funding directly from the state, at a rate of about $6,500 per pupil, which is a lower than average per-pupil expenditure at traditional public schools, which averaged approximately $14,375 in 2015. Data from the current academic year is not available yet.

So why are charter schools so divisive? Charter school advocates want more funding and to raise the cap on admittance. They say the schools create new educational models of teaching and learning that appeal to students who might not learn best in a traditional school setting and give parents more choices in their children’s education.

Opponents say charter schools take away state money that could go to improve traditional schools, and they lack equal proportions of disabled or special needs students, who then are forced into the traditional public school system.

And the argument that charter school students perform better on standardized tests is a moot point. While statewide assessment results generally show that trend, the comparisons can be misleading since charter schools and traditional public schools do not have equivalent student populations in terms of learning ability and special needs.

Out of the 10 bills filed for the current legislative session, seven of them seek to place limits on charter schools or give the state more control of them. They are sponsored by Democrats. Three of the bills look to provide more funding or give charter schools more authority — all sponsored by Republicans. So you can see that this issue largely falls on party lines.

Rep. Timothy Horrigan, D-Durham, appears to be charter schools’ biggest opponent by being the prime sponsor on most of the “anti-charter” legislation. But with a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled Legislature, it’s difficult to see a scenario where any of the Democrat’s legislation makes it far. Especially with a pro-charter school governor who wants to increase funding.

And Sununu’s nominee for education commissioner, former state Rep. Frank Edelblut, is also a school choice, pro-charter supporter. It seems unlikely that any of the limiting charter school legislation will make it out of the House Education Committee.

 

THE ‘CROYDON’ BILL

For those unfamiliar with the story of the town of Croydon and school choice, let me fill you in.

The town has been in an ongoing legal battle with the courts and state Department of Education over its decision to send some of its students to a nearby Montessori school at taxpayer expense.

Many small communities in the state do not have a local K-12 school district and they contract with larger nearby districts to send their students to school there, usually though a per-student tuition contract paid for by the town where the students come from.

So, the Croydon School District had a tuition agreement with the town of Newport, but that contact ended in 2014. Croydon gave parents the option of choosing public and private schools to send their children, which would be funded by taxpayers.

The state and courts have ruled that the town cannot use public funds to pay for private school. But the school district says there is nothing in state law that prohibits it from using private schools if it’s in the best interest of the students.

Now, school choice advocates are rallying behind House Bill 557, which would allow a school district to send a child to a private school, even a religious one, if there is not a public school for the child’s grade in their home district.

The first hearing for the bill was held on Wednesday and the state Department of Justice said the bill violates the N.H. Constitution for allowing taxpayer money to be used for religious schools and could lead to other court cases in towns where parents are paying for private schools out-of-pocket.

It’s a tricky bill, but if it makes it out of committee and goes through the Legislature, Sununu is expected to sign it. In an op-ed published in the New Hampshire Union Leader during his gubernatorial run, he said, “the issue in Croydon is a clear example of government overreach.”

“Too often, special interests and unelected bureaucrats act as if they know what is right for children over the judgment of parents,” he wrote. “Instead of expanding options for families, the state has unfortunately been working to reduce them.”

And assuming Edelblut is approved by the Republican-controlled Executive Council, he has also indicated that he supports the Croydon School District, so he could make this bill a priority and work with members of the Legislature to get it passed.

 

COMMON CORE

While not directly about school choice, the issue of Common Core State Standards will be a dividing issue in the Legislature. School choice is all about giving parents a greater role in their child’s education and with Common Core, many parents feel the federal government and state are mandating what their children should learn — even if they don’t believe it’s in their best interests.

Bills in the House and Senate seek to make clear that school districts are not required to implement the standards if they don’t want to.

NH Journal has previously reported on the issue of Common Core in the state and how the state board of education gave towns and cities the flexibility and local control to implement the standards how they saw fit.

Sununu and Edelblut have both said they want to “repeal Common Core.” What exactly that means, is still unclear, but if these bills make it to Sununu’s desk, it’s also likely that he would sign them.

 

HONORABLE MENTION:

Here are some other bills relating to school choice (or parental involvement) that will appear in during the current legislative session:

  • Constitutional Amendment Concurrent Resolution 7: “The general court shall have the authority to define standards of accountability, mitigate local disparities in educational opportunity and fiscal capacity, and have full discretion to determine the amount of state funding for education.”
  • House Bill 395: “This bill repeals state board of education rulemaking authority for home education programs and inserts the duties and procedures related to membership in the home education advisory council statute.”
  • House Bill 103: “This bill requires school districts to provide advance notice to parents and legal guardians of course material involving discussion of human sexuality or human sexual education.” Here is NH Journal’s story on how that bill came to fruition.

 

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