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Friday Fact Check: Did DeVos Really Write Sununu’s Back-to-School Plan?

Did Betsy DeVos write the Sununu administration’s back-to-school plan?

According to Democrats Andru Volinsky and Dan Feltes — absolutely.

“This Sununu-Edelblut-DeVos agenda document abandons the state’s responsibility to ensure a safe return to schooling,” Executive Councilor Volinsky said of the Sununu administration’s guidance document.

“Instead of releasing an education plan by New Hampshire, for New Hampshire, Governor Sununu outsourced New Hampshire’s education reopening plan to be written by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ D.C. consultants,” state Sen. Feltes said in a statement.

But do the facts, and basic logic, back their claims?


On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu released his administration’s 56-page guidance document for reopening New Hampshire schools. The key word, Sununu reiterated, is “flexibility.” His plan contains almost no mandates (a key point we’ll come back to later) and instead offers “guideposts,” as Sununu calls them, for schools to use should they choose to have classroom instruction, Zoom learning from home, or some hybrid of both.

Granite State Democrats and the state’s teachers unions immediately expressed their displeasure. “We had hoped for a set of minimum safety standards for all schools to achieve before they were safe to reopen. Instead, we received 56 pages of ‘shoulds’ not ‘shalls,'” said NEA-NH President Megan Tuttle.

“With less than two months before school starts, families and teachers wanted certainty; Sununu just delivered chaos,” Feltes said.

“Let’s call Sununu’s ‘plan’ for what it really is — the state abandoning its responsibility to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of students and teachers,” added Volinsky.


At Thursday’s presser, a writer from the liberal website InDepthNH asked Sununu, “Why did you let [federal Education Secretary] Betsy DeVos’s people write the guidance document for reopening schools?” The question was based on accusations from Feltes and Volinsky, which were in turn inspired by an exchange between Volinsky and New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut at Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting.

Volinsky asked the commissioner, “Who wrote the document and who approved it?”

In a winding, nine-minute series of questions and answers, much of it in education bureaucracy jargon, Edelblut described the process, beginning with the 60-member School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce (STRRT).

“Based on that input from the STRRT committee… the U.S. Department of Education worked along with a consulting firm, AIR, to take all that content and put it into the framework the STRRT committee had organized,” Edelblut said. “That’s the result you see here. Much of the drafting was done by the Department of Education, then it was weighed in on, and a medical perspective was added by Dr. Chan, resulting in the final product we have now produced.” [emphasis added]

And, Edelblut conceded, the final document did not go back to the STRRT committee for their approval before Gov. Sununu released it.

Therefore, Feltes and Volinsky claim, the Sununu administration’s policy was, “written by Betsy DeVos” and foist upon the people of New Hampshire.


The first, and most obvious, fact is, whoever wrote the Sununu guidance, it is certainly not the DeVos plan. President Trump and his education secretary have made it perfectly clear that their plan for America’s schools is: “Send all the kids back to class — now!” Just ask union president Tuttle, who tweeted out this quote from the White House spokesperson:

“The President has said unmistakably that he wants schools to open, and when he says open, he means open in full, kids being able to attend each and every day at their school.”

If DeVos really had written Sununu’s plan, it would mandate classroom instruction whether local schools liked it or not.

The second fact is that a cursory view of the meetings of the STRRT (watch the exciting, edge-of-your-seat taskforce meetings here!) reveals the guidance released by Gov. Sununu reflects the will of the task force. As Edelblut told Volinsky, the STRRT laid out “high-level” general guidance on topics like transporting kids and personal protective equipment in the classroom, and the final product reflects those views.

And then there’s the fact that the Sununu administration’s plan isn’t a “plan” at all. They made the decision, one supported by the STRRT, to avoid mandates and let local officials decide what’s best for local schools.

As Sununu told NHJournal on Thursday, “Local control works.”

“I don’t know why they [Feltes and Volinsky] don’t have faith in teachers, administrators and parents to find solutions for themselves,” Sununu said. “I have all the faith in the world that the teachers, parents and principals know how to manage their classrooms, not a governor sitting in the corner office. I don’t know why they don’t have more faith that folks other than themselves might have the solutions for these problems.”

But what about those federal education consultants? Or the “drafting done by the Department of Education?”

It turns out the private consulting firm AIR has been running federal “Comprehensive Centers” since 2005, under contracts awarded by both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

They get federal tax dollars to facilitate meetings and draft documents — things that volunteer organizations do for themselves for free all the time, by the way. But wasting tax dollars on redundant government bureaucrats is hardly unique to the DeVos Department of Education.

And AIR’s role is literally laid out in page one of the documents launching the STRRT process back in May:

“The work will be facilitated by the Region 1 Comprehensive Center from the U.S. Department of Education and facilitated by AIR. The work of the facilitator(s) will include:

  • Facilitation of large group discussions
  • Support the development of the report.

In other words, hold meetings and write a report. Which they did. No conspiracy here.


Whether you love or hate Sununu’s local-control approach to reopening schools, there’s no denying: it’s his plan. DeVos and the feds had nothing to do with it.

It’s also, as Sununu likes to point out, a very “New Hampshire” plan, leaving power at the lowest levels of government.

It didn’t have to go this way. Governors in other states are using their power to push mandates on local schools, and Sununu could certainly follow their example. He chose not to, and the STRRT backed his approach.

The claim that Betsy DeVos “wrote,” or even had a role in, the Sununu back-to-school guidance simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.


Only the phrase “drafting done by the Department of Education” keeps Democrats from getting an “F.”

There’s a big debate brewing over local control of schools in the era of COVID-19. There’s no reason for Democrats to invent things to fight about.

State Continues Work on ESSA Plan, But School Funding Inequality Still a Concern

States are inching closer to implementing their own education plans that fall in line with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). In a bipartisan manner, Congress got rid of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2015 and rolled back some of the federal government’s control over education policy, giving states more power to set their own goals and increase accountability.

In New Hampshire, state officials released their ESSA draft plan in May and accepted public comments until Friday. The draft version of the Granite State’s plan stresses competency-based tests over standardized assessments, and vocational education tied to industry needs. ESSA doesn’t change how often schools must give out standardized tests. It is still required that testing occurs in third through eighth grades and once in high school, but the law gives states flexibility in deciding what schools need to report, what their goals are, and what criteria determines if a school is struggling or not.

For example, New Hampshire school districts still need to report their high school graduation rates and the test scores of annual standardized assessments. Those school districts participating in the state’s pilot PACE program don’t take standardized tests every year, but use locally-designed assessments. If the federal government renews the state’s waiver, that program will continue.

However, under the state’s ESSA plan, schools would also be assessed based on new metrics, including progress toward English language proficiency and how well the average student is progressing from year to year at the elementary and middle school levels. Another indicator would also track how well the lowest-performing students are progressing each year.

High schools will also measure and report on college and career readiness. Schools will be scored on how many students fulfill at least two of nine requirements aimed at showing they’re ready for life post-graduation. Those requirements include SAT or ACT scores meeting or exceeding the college- and career-ready standard, getting a passing score on an AP or International Baccalaureate exam, scoring at least a Level III on the Armed Forces Qualifying Test, earning a career technical education credential, completing a N.H. Scholars program, or finishing a N.H. career pathway program of study.

Depending on how well students perform under those metrics, schools would be flagged for extra support if students aren’t reaching those benchmarks. Schools who need additional help would get it through Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), and Targeted Improvement and Support (TSI).

Using the different metrics, schools would receive CSI help if they score in the bottom fifth percentile in the state or if their graduation rates are below 67 percent. TSI schools would be identified when subgroups consistently underperform according to the goals set by the state.

The state’s ESSA plan sets overall goals of 53.77 percent proficiency in math and 74.04 percent proficiency in English language arts by 2025. For different subgroups of students, the state has other goals. For example, students with disabilities are expected to hit 25.05 percent proficiency in math and 41.34 percent proficiency in English by 2025. Economically disadvantaged students are expected to be at 37.09 percent proficiency in math and 56.47 percent proficiency by 2025.

Some of those benchmarks could be hard to hit for school districts who are already strapped for cash and are seeing a decline in student enrollment. According to a report released last week from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, it projects that state aid to school districts will shrink by $16 million over the next five years.

In December 1997, the N.H. Supreme Court issued its landmark Claremont decision, calling for equal access to an adequate education across the state, regardless of community wealth or property values. The policy institute concluded that little has changed since that decision was handed down.

Image Credit: New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

The report notes that there has been a 40 percent increase in state aid to education since 1997, but there has also been a 15 percent decline in school enrollment statewide and significant disparities still exist from one community to another.

For example, property-poor communities like Claremont and Franklin continue to tax their residents at disproportionately higher rates to finance their education.

The research suggests that the disparities will continue and possibly worsen unless there comes a major change in how education is structured and funded.

In response, state education commissioner Frank Edelblut announced last week that the N.H. Department of Education would form its own committee, headed by the department Director of School Finance Caitlin Davis, to study the school finance problem and report its findings to a legislative panel that is considering changes to the state’s formula.

Since the release of New Hampshire’s ESSA draft plan, the education department has already received hundreds of comments, including some from civil rights advocates who want to ensure the state is held accountable for providing equitable learning opportunities, especially for marginalized students.

Now that the public comment period has ended, the state has about a month to tweak the plan based on the feedback before it’s submitted to the U.S. Department of Education for review and final approval in September.

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