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Capital Beat: Will education become a major 2014 issue?

Last modified: 5/11/2014 12:56:21 AM
State education policy got a rare moment in the political spotlight this week when the Executive Council confirmed Gov. Maggie Hassan’s nominee Bill Duncan to the State Board of Education.

Duncan, who runs the advocacy group Advancing New Hampshire Public Education, is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit against the state’s education tax credit law, which gives businesses tax breaks if they contribute to scholarship funds for public school children to use at private schools.

A firestorm of controversy surrounds the nomination, with executive councilors saying they received a flood of phone calls and emails from concerned parents. State board chairman Tom Raffio said he hasn’t seen this kind of political activity around a nominee on his seven years on the board.

Even Ann Marie Banfield, education liaison for Cornerstone Action, which supports the voucher program, said she wasn’t expecting such a big reaction from parents.

“Even I could not have predicted the kind of backlash that created,” Banfield said. “This is the type of activism I have not seen in a long time. To generate that many phone calls and that many emails, it was surprising.”

Republican politicians, wisely, have tried to turn that backlash into political capital. Hassan’s two Republican opponents, Andrew Hemingway and Walt Havenstein, alongside Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, the state Republican Party and Americans for Prosperity all came out strongly against the nomination, saying it proved Hassan was out of touch with New Hampshire values on education.

“Governor Hassan’s decision to nominate Mr. Duncan was simply a favor for the teachers unions who also oppose school choice and are bankrolling her campaign,” Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Horn said in a statement.

And it wasn’t the only education issue that generated outrage this week.

Video footage of a Gilford dad who was arrested for speaking out at a school board meeting about a novel he felt was inappropriate for his daughter to read quickly went viral. For Republican activists who take a skeptical view of teachers unions and public schools, this incident provided fuel to the fire that public schools are shutting down free speech, a sentiment that’s grown as schools continue to implement the Common Core State Standards over their protests.

Taken together, these issues prove at least one thing: People are paying attention to education policy and may continue to do so through Election Day.

“I don’t think that anything is going to rise above (Obamacare), but I do think that this is gaining steam,” Banfield said. “In the last presidential election, no one really talked about (education).”

Democrats have typically won when it comes to education and have received strong backing for years from teachers unions. But in recent years, Republicans have created their own pro-school choice, anti-Common Core agenda that is drawing support from activists and parents. The national Republican Party platform is anti-Common Core, Hemingway earned loud cheers from the crowd at his announcement speech when he denounced the standards, and Republican House members made numerous legislative attempts to dismantle the standards this session. Of course, none of those efforts succeeded, and it’s hard to quantify how much support the anti-Common Core backers have.

But, Banfield said, Hassan’s nomination of Duncan to the board and the Democratic councilors’ approval served as salt in the wound for parents who already felt their voices were ignored when members of the House Education Committee continued to back Common Core. Time will tell whether these parents continue to mobilize.

“These parents walk away going, ‘Okay, how many more people is it going to take for them to hear us?’ ” Banfield said.

To be clear: Lots of lawmakers and experienced educators think Duncan is a great choice for the board and say his record has been mischaracterized.

New Hampshire has 22 charter schools, and both Hassan and the board of education have agreed that charter schools – which are public – are an important part of New Hampshire’s education landscape. The real concern for Duncan and Democrats is over whether “public” money should go toward financing private and religious schools. This policy was adopted by the Legislature, not the state board.

“Some of the charter school advocates were linking that case with, ‘This means he is against charter schools,’ ” said Raffio, chairman of the state board. “It’s an apple and an orange. It’s an apple and kumquat really.”

Raffio said he thinks Duncan is a good choice for the board because he’s shown he’s willing to put his personal time toward education issues.

Still, this nomination is another push to parents and activists who feel the state board and the governor don’t know what’s best for their children.

“If they feel like they’re being heard, I don’t think it’s going to generate the kind of political action that I think is coming,” Banfield said. “You can call it political action based on education, (but) I think it’s more political action based on the fact that their voices are not being heard.”

Seeking veterans’ votes

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s first official ad buy launched last Sunday – and set off a week of scrambling by the senator and her Republican opponents to prove why they deserve veterans’ votes.

The ad, which ran for a week, highlighted Shaheen’s work to bring more veterans clinics to New Hampshire. The day after it came out, her campaign also announced a Veterans Steering Committee, including a bipartisan group of veterans whose mission is to generate support for Shaheen.

She also introduced legislation this week aimed at decreasing the backlog of appeals claims for veterans with disabilities.

But the New Hampshire Republican Party was quick to hit back, saying Shaheen failed to bring a full-service Veterans Hospital to New Hampshire, something she criticized then-Sen. John E. Sununu for failing to do during their 2008 race.

Scott Brown’s campaign quickly sent out a Monday release about Brown’s visit with veterans in Manchester, including quotes from veterans who said he is the candidate who truly understands what veterans need. Brown, who is set to retire after 35 years in the Army National Guard, also visited with veterans in Milford on Wednesday.

But it’s Jim Rubens, one of Brown’s primary rivals, who has been talking about veterans issues for weeks. In April, reports surfaced that dozens of veterans died at a Veterans Administration hospital in Arizona due to inadequate medical care.

Rubens began sending out information on the deaths two weeks ago, saying Brown failed to do enough to stop these problems as a U.S. senator and that anyone responsible for the “vile and heartless abuse” of veterans must be “rooted out and held fully accountable.” He’s called for veterans on wait lists for care to receive vouchers for use at hospitals of their choosing.

It wasn’t until the middle of this week that Brown spoke out on this issue, joining a chorus of voices asking for the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs to step down. Shaheen, for her part, called on the Obama administration to investigate the issue on April 25, the same day Rubens first began addressing the issue. Still, Rubens is hitting her for a lack of leadership.

“New Hampshire residents are fed up to the gills with career politicians like Jeanne Shaheen who issue press releases to deflect attention from their failure to get results,” Rubens said in a statement.

Rubens may not be getting as much press attention as his rivals, but he’s been speaking out with concrete ideas on nearly every major policy issue. If this keeps up, Brown could be in for a real primary fight.

Loans, sunscreen and
Russian sanctions

New Hampshire’s congressional delegation has been busy in the last few weeks, introducing and backing legislation on everything from community bank loans to sunscreen ingredients.

This week, the House passed a bill co-authored by U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster that makes it easier for small community banks to raise capital. She also co-authored a letter requesting the Obama administration add Boko Haram, a terrorist organization that recently kidnapped hundreds of girls in Nigeria, to the U.N. al-Qaida Sanctions List with the goal of stopping the flow of money to the organization. The U.S. State Department has already designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization.

Also in the past two weeks, Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte has weighed in on everything from late-term abortions to sunscreen ingredients to stricter sanctions on Russia. Ayotte led a group of 33 Republican senators in calling on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to allow for a vote on legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Ayotte also co-sponsored legislation aimed at speeding up the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process to allow new ingredients in sunscreen that are already used in Canada and elsewhere. Last week, Ayotte co-sponsored a bill to beef up sanctions against Russia and Vladimir Putin.

In addition to her veterans legislation, Shaheen pushed last week for an extension of a visa program that allows Afghan civilians who aided the U.S. in war to obtain visas to come here.

What to watch

∎ The House takes up a paycheck equity bill this week, but a committee watered down a key piece of the legislation, which allows people to file complaints against employers up to three years after the pay violation occurred. The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee changed the period to one year. Democrats in the House may try to block the amendment and pass the bill in its original form, which already won support in the Senate.

∎ House members in favor of repealing the death penalty will try to give their bill one last shot to pass the Senate. The criminal justice committee also tacked a death penalty repeal amendment onto a Senate bill on burglaries. If the House accepts the amendment, senators will have to decide whether to ditch the bill or take it to a committee of conference.

∎ The House will have a second chance to send $15 million in surplus money to the state’s Rainy Day Fund, a move it rejected earlier this year in favor of sending some of it to the Department of Health and Human Services. A House committee recommend sending a Senate bill to put all the money in the reserve fund to interim study, but Republicans will likely try to persuade the House to change its tune after recent warnings from two credit approval agencies, which said New Hampshire is on thin financial footing.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or kronayne@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)


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