Capital Beat: Is Learn Everywhere heading nowhere?

Monitor staff
Published: 7/20/2019 6:22:21 PM

At Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook, not all roads to graduation are traditional.

This past year 137 students used alternative credits to graduate, taking part in district-approved online courses – “Extended Learning Opportunities” – in subjects not available within the school walls.

A skip down Interstate 93, the McAuliffe-Shepherd Discovery Center is trying to edge into education a different way.

The Center is an early proponent of Learn Everywhere, a proposal from the Department of Education that would allow families to enroll children in state-approved credit programs – without needing clearance from individual school districts.

It’s a concept supported by many sides of the educational divide: offering educational opportunities for students outside public school grounds and within businesses and communities.

But the mechanics of the Department’s plan have attracted furious controversy, and driven a wedge between right-leaning policy makers and public school educators over control. And last week, the debate moved to the Legislature.

In a significant – and predictable – early blow to Commissioner Frank Edelblut’s proposal, a powerful House and Senate rules committee voted Thursday to object to the new program, sending it back to the department for further revision.

The sticking point? Control. In a state where the words “local control” are as widely lauded as “income tax” is vilified, school districts say the new proposal would take that away.

Advocates of the program prefer a different metric: parental control.

Welcome to the next round of the perennial New Hampshire school choice debate. Here’s where things stand.

The rules

Midway through February, the Department of Education pitched a new program to the state Board of Education. Learn Everywhere, billed as an expansion of choice for public school students and families, would expand pathways for students to cross the graduation stage.

To some extent the concept already existed; Extended Learning Opportunities have afforded students in certain schools – like those in Penacook – the opportunity to take alternative courses. One charter school, the Exeter-based Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, or VLACS, now offers online courses free to New Hampshire students.

But Learn Everywhere differed in one key respect: universal approval. Under the rules, external learning experiences would not need to be approved by each school district, but rather would be accredited by the state Board of Education. The school districts would then need to accept graduation credits earned by students under the approved program.

Getting approval as a program is a multistage process involving an application through the Department of Education, and a final vote by the seven-member, gubernatorial-appointed state board.

Getting approval for the credits is somewhat easier. Students would need only notify their school after completing the course or program in question, and would receive full credit for doing so. Up to 30% of high school or middle school student’s credits would have to be honored by the district under the rules.

Suddenly, a student’s curriculum could look very different from the one set by his or her school. And parents would be firmly in the driver’s seat.

The concerns

Supporters of the Learn Everywhere program, which was approved 4-3 by the State Board last month, pitch it as an expansive way to allow organizations to develop out-of-classroom learning programs without having to worry about the politics of district by district approval.

It would let students accrue credit for activities they’re already doing, and reschedule their lives to fit the careers they want to pursue, proponents say.

But from the get-go, educators had concerns. Chief among them: control. By ceding authority for up to 30% of their students’ schedule to programs approved by the state board, schools could lose the ability to effectively integrate each student’s in-school courses, officials have argued. That could mean a student swapping out certain pre-requisites for an external course that may not prepare them for the higher level course, school officials warn.

And a profusion of external opportunities could make it difficult to plan dynamic programs that might not attract interest, some have argued.

Others have raised issues around equity: with some proposed programs charging tuition of hundreds or thousands of dollars, certain students could be shut out of the new opportunities, they argue.

Drew Cline, the chairman of the state Board of Education and an ardent supporter of Learn Everywhere, dismissed that concern. The real equity, he argued, comes from students in different school districts having the same opportunities to participate in out-of-classroom activities – while receiving credits. The program would break down barriers between some schools that have developed and others too strapped to offer anything beyond the basics, Cline said.

Still, the objections have swelled for months – in hearing testimony, written feedback and public letters – and now they’ve landed in Legislature.

The speed bump

After last month’s State Board approval, Learn Everywhere has one crucial stop: the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules. That’s the quietly powerful House and Senate committee that approves the bylaws and rules drafted by state departments to fill in the gaps with legislation.

Last week, JLCAR dealt the program a setback, voting 6-4 to lodge a preliminary objection to the rules as written.

Democrats on the committee say the rules provided by the Department of Education are incompatible with state law. But some argued they aren’t wholly opposed.

“I think it’s not a bad idea to have all kinds of learning opportunities for our young people,” said Rep. Peter Schmidt, a Dover Democrat. “So I’m not hostile, but of course, the devil’s in the details and the details as I see them would wind up kind of blowing up the current situation.”

For now, it’s a waiting game; the department has 45 days to deliberate on , and Democratic members of JLCAR say they’re open to what comes back. But if the differences prove unbridgeable, the committee is prepared to stand its ground, Schmidt said. They could issue a final objection, or if push comes to shove, the Legislature could pass a joint resolution prohibiting the rules entirely.

“We’ll see what they come back with,” Schmidt said.

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