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Sununu taps Frank Edelblut for N.H. education commissioner

  • Edelblut

  • Frank Edelblut meets with at the ‘Monitor’ editorial board on Aug. 16, 2016. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has tapped a Common Core critic who home-schooled his seven children to lead the state’s education department.

Sununu officially nominated one-term state Rep. Frank Edelblut on Wednesday, a move that drew quick criticism from the left and praise from Republicans.

Edelblut is a businessman from Wilton who unsuccessfully challenged Sununu for the GOP gubernatorial nomination last year. Edelblut has never served on his local school board, but said his corporate background will help modernize the state’s public education system.

“Who better to bridge that gap between the workforce and education system than someone who knows the workforce really well?” said Edelblut, who sold his consulting business in 2009 for an undisclosed sum.

The New Hampshire education commissioner oversees charter schools and public education from kindergarten to 12th grade.

Edelblut’s stances on education mark a dramatic shift from those of outgoing Commissioner Virginia Barry, who has called opponents of Common Core “misinformed,” according to news reports.

Edelblut has railed against Common Core standards, Smarter Balanced testing and the federal government’s guidance for transgender bathroom choice. As a proponent of school choice, Edelblut backed an effort to let districts use public funds to pay student tuition at private schools and he advocates letting local school boards set student standards. The Republican isn’t “persuaded” that full-day kindergarten is the best option for kids, he said.

If confirmed, Edelblut would prioritize “personalized” education by letting students learn at their own pace and give them access to alternative teaching options, such as online courses or traditional lecture-style classes. He said he wants to help “break down the system so each kid is treated as a unique entity.”

Edelblut and his wife of 30 years home-schooled their children, two of whom are still high-school age.

Democratic Councilor Andru Volinsky criticized Sununu’s pick, saying Edelblut has a lack of formal experience and training in education.

“Why would someone who fundamentally doesn’t believe in public education want to be responsible for meeting all of the needs of people who rely on public ed in the state?” said Volinsky, a Concord attorney who has challenged the state over inequities in public school funding. “It doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good nomination.”

Sununu said Edelblut’s background in home-schooling provides an opportunity for innovation in public education.

“That’s the type of opportunity this state needs, someone who’s kind of taken a different path, who understands the values, the pros and cons of alternative education,” he said. “We’re looking for those alternatives, how to do it a little differently.”

Edelblut’s appointment needs sign-off from the Republican-controlled Executive Council. A date for the vote has not been set, and a public hearing will be scheduled in the coming weeks.

If approved, Edelblut would earn a $93,800 annual salary, roughly $26,200 less than what Barry took home in 2015, state records show.

Former political rivals, Edelblut and Sununu don’t see eye-to-eye on all education matters. While Sununu has voiced support for state funding for full-day kindergarten, Edelblut is skeptical, but said he would implement the policy if it’s approved by the Legislature and governor.

“I don’t think its a great idea,” he said. “We have some risks associated with it for the kids in particular.”

In the House, Edelblut served on the powerful finance committee, but sometimes waded into education issues.

Members of the Croydon School District said Edelblut helped take up their cause after the state sued them for using public money to pay tuition for some students to attend the local Montessori school. Edelblut co-sponsored education bills in the House, including one directly related to Croydon that would have let school districts use taxpayer dollars to send their students to private schools in some cases. The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat.

During the campaign, Edelblut outlined a plan to overhaul the state’s public school system by letting students choose their learning styles and potentially complete their high school education in two years.

In the run up to the election, he declined to talk with the Monitor about his home-schooling experience and how educating his own children informed his outlook on education.

But on the stump, Edelblut often talked about his son’s struggle to read at an early age. With extra work and the help of outside professionals, he said his child was breezing through books by age 12.

“It turns out the kid was just a genius, but he didn’t learn in the traditional system so he needed another way to get there,” Edelblut told voters last year.

Edelblut graduated from the University of Rhode Island with a degree in business administration and earned a master’s degree in theological studies in 2015 from Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

He was elected to the House of Representatives in 2014 and mounted his campaign for governor a year later. He finished an unexpected second place in the Republican primary. He fell just 800 votes shy of Sununu, but did not ask for a recount and quickly endorsed the winner at a press conference outside the State House.

Barry plans to leave the post by the end of January, and councilors accepted her resignation Wednesday.

Sununu has a number of major appointments to make during his first few months in office, such as Attorney General, Labor Commissioner and Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Services.

Edelblut said he began talking with Sununu about the nomination a few weeks ago.

“I just can’t wait to help each one of these kids achieve their maximum potential,” he said.

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)