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Edelblut town hall draws ire as questions chosen by moderator

  • Lola Duffort/Monitor staff

  • Protestors picket outside the New England College Simond Center before Edelblut’s town hall. Lola Duffort/Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/28/2017 10:51:52 PM

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut took – and sometimes ducked – questions from an oft-restive town hall audience at New England College on Friday.

During the roughly hour-and-half long event, Edelblut expounded on his vision for personalized learning and answered questions written by audience members that were chosen and read by event moderator Scott Spradling.

Both his answers and the event’s format – which didn’t allow for attendees to ask questions directly – at times drew the audience’s ire. When Edelblut declined to take a position on whether he thought the state should fund full-day kindergarten because he was, as commissioner, just “the implementation guy,” a groan from the audience drowned him out.

Edelblut said he wanted to encourage “parent voice” in schools, a concept he differentiated from “parent engagement.” Parent engagement is things like community events, he said. But as an example of parent voice, he pointed to a school district that allowed parents to choose between six other elementary schools.

“That parent chose that school. There were five other places that they could have sent their child but they chose that school. And so they have skin in the game,” he said.

Edelblut also said that while New Hampshire had made great strides in personalized learning, progress was uneven.

“I will also say that it’s a little lumpy. Some places are doing some great creative things, other places not so much. And what we want to do is make sure that everybody is getting those great opportunities,” he said.

On questions about paying for education – whether it was school building aid, higher education funding or full-day kindergarten – Edelblut often repeated the line that he didn’t have “Claremont fairy dust,” a reference to the state Supreme Court decision that established the state’s responsibility for funding education.

He also insisted that conversations about education could be separated from conversations about paying for it.

“We are conflating funding and pedagogical opportunities,” he said. “On the academic and pedagogical side, we have a whole bunch of things that we can do in this domain with the resources that we have, because I’ve seen it in our schools.”

It was a distinction Edelblut tried to draw again later, when asked about a school choice bill that legislators just hit pause on at the State House. It would have allowed parents to take the per-pupil grant their district gets from the state and instead put it towards private school tuition or homeschooling expenses.

“Let’s talk about choice then. And again, there’s a presumption in that question that choice always has to do with money. And I’m going to continue to deconstruct this conflation that seems to occur again and again,” he said.

“Doesn’t that bill have a fiscal note, though?” somebody called out from the audience.

Asked about what schools could do to support LGBTQ students, Edelblut answered tersely.

“So I think we have to support all of our students, period,” he said, without elaborating. While he was running for governor last year, Edelblut said that transgender students shouldn’t use the bathroom of their choice. And as a legislator, he argued against a bill to ban so-called conversion therapy, a discredited practice that aims to help people become heterosexual.

A newcomer to the education field, Edelblut told the audience he was still getting acquainted with the “alphabet soup” of educational bureaucracies. That point was driven home when, asked what he would do if federal funding were rescinded for a pilot program helping to integrate students with disabilities – SWIFT – Edelblut acklowledged he didn’t know much about it.

Noticing that the program’s director was actually in the audience, he asked her to help out.

“There she is. There’s my SWIFT person. She’s going to be so disappointed in me. I was meeting with her just the other day. Tell me SWIFT again,” he said.

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