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Sununu hails school choice in celebratory event

  • Gov. Chris Sununu speaks at an event supporting school choice at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester on Tuesday night. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • Kate Baker of the Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire cheers as Gov. Chris Sununu prepares to read a proclamation naming this week New Hampshire School Choice Week during an event supporting school choice at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester on Tuesday evening.

  • School choice advocates applaud at an event at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester on Tuesday evening. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • Kathryn Michelotti and her 2-year-old son Morgan Glaser listen to a musical performance during an event supporting school choice in Manchester on Tuesday evening.



Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

With school choice “champion” Republican Gov. Chris Sununu as their keynote speaker, parents and advocates celebrated National School Choice Week in Manchester on Tuesday.

“I think it’s fair to say that in this young, new governor of ours, we have a real champion when it comes to school choice,” Ovide Lamontagne, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate, told a crowd of a few hundred gathered at the Currier Art Museum.

Lamontagne cheered indications at the national and state level that choice was poised to make new major inroads in education, noting President Donald Trump’s nomination of billionaire school choice advocate Betsy DeVos to lead the U.S. Department of Education and Sununu’s pick to lead the state’s education department, Frank Edelblut.

Before proclaiming Jan. 22-28 New Hampshire School Choice Week, Sununu told the crowd his own children had been home-schooled, had then gone to public school, and were now attending Catholic school.

“You want to talk about school choice. I’m living it. And I love it,” he said. “I’m honored that I’ve had the opportunity, and some of the options that I’ve had. But I can tell you that there are a lot of people in this state that don’t have the same opportunity and options that I’ve had.”

Sununu also talked about Edelblut, a businessman and former state representative who challenged Sununu in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

“Boy, talk about a guy who knows his stuff. Here’s a guy who’s lived a path of alternative education with his kids,” Sununu said, referencing the fact that Edelblut home-schooled his seven children.

Edelblut has been a popular pick on the right, with conservatives lauding his business background and advocacy for choice. But Democrats and teachers unions have pushed back, arguing that, unlike his predecessors, Edelblut has no professional background in education and won’t be fair to traditional public schools.

But Sununu told the audience that Edelblut was deeply knowledgeable. He recalled in asking Edelblut to come talk about potentially joining the administration.

“I love this guy. He shows with a backpack – right, how appropriate – full of binders this thick. Right?” Sununu said, indicating width with his hands. “And it’s all about Common Core and the financing of education and all this stuff. And he had read it twice through.”

He added, “I challenge anyone to find anybody in this state who truly knows more about the details, the legislative process. And he has the right mindset.”

Sununu also pushed back at the idea that choice, or Edelblut, signaled a hostility toward traditional public schools.

“We’re not trying to blow up education, or battle public education. I love public education. I’m the first governor in 25 years that actually attended New Hampshire public schools,” he said. “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.”

The governor also voiced his support of House Bill 386, a bill that would tweak the law that allows businesses to get tax credits for donations to nonprofits that fund scholarships for students that go to a charter or private school or are home-schooled.

It would allow the tax credit program to include funds to pay for college courses for eligible high school students, and extend the timeline within which businesses can apply for the credit. The Children’s Scholarship Fund New Hampshire, the main nonprofit that accepts donations under the program, organized Tuesday’s event.

In many ways, the tax credit program is emblematic of the movement, which has made steady gains despite vocal resistance, especially on the left. The program was sued by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, and a superior court judge agreed. Later, the New Hampshire Supreme Court overturned that decision without ruling on the constitutionality of the program, saying the group didn’t have standing to sue.

The program is now growing quickly. The state awarded $328,000 in tax credits to businesses in 2016, a Department of Revenue analyst told lawmakers Tuesday, about double the prior year’s numbers.

Lawmakers were in the audience Tuesday, and other choice-related bills are in the pipeline. Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Tuftonboro Republican, has filed legislation to create a charter school commission with the power to authorize charter schools. Right now, only local school districts or the state board of education can authorize a charter.

Another bill would allow public school districts to pay tuition to private schools. Similar legislation, then championed by Edelblut, passed both chambers of the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat. Sununu has pledged to sign such a bill.

Kathryn Michelotti of Derry said she home-schools her 6- and 9-year-old because she thought they’d get a better education away from their peers.

“Studies have shown that the sooner an individual is put into a group setting, the less able they are to indentify their wants and needs as separate from that of the group,” she said. “I thought that it was important that they develop who they were going to become before they were put into a group setting.”

Michelotti said she’d seen Edelblut talk at PorcFest, a libertarian festival, and was excited about his nomination.

“I loved everything he had to say. And how he backed it up with – not only with his own experience with his family but with research, and with just, you know – no one’s going to be more passionate about a child’s education than the parents.”

Danielle Harley of Nashua has one kindergartener at the Gate City Charter School for the Arts in Merrimack, and another about to enroll.

“I liked the community aspect of it, how involved all the families are in everything. I liked being closely tied with the school,” she said.

 

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)