Bill Duncan: How ‘Learn Everywhere’ undermines local control

For the Monitor
Published: 1/30/2019 12:15:00 AM

The New Hampshire Department of Education has been promoting something it calls “Learn Everywhere” as an extension of the well-
established and supported Extended Learning Opportunities that many middle and high schools offer to give students credit for academically relevant work they do in carefully structured work in their communities.

It would be a mistake to see it that way.

The wholesome sounding Learn Everywhere program is actually the state administration attempting, in one move, to usurp the roles of both the Legislature and local school boards. Here’s how.

Gov. Chris Sununu says that Senate Bill 435 was one of his major legislative priorities last year. He’s talking about a one-sentence bill that empowers the State Board of Education to adopt rules about “alternative programs for granting credit leading to graduation.”

This is a bill sold to the Legislature as a minor administrative tweak that the governor is now using as a loophole big enough to drive a truck through.

This became apparent when the Department of Education presented the Learning Everywhere program to the state board in January. Under the new program, the state board would grant a license to any for-profit or nonprofit group with a presence in New Hampshire. That license would give the group the authority to issue academic credits that must be accepted by any New Hampshire high school.

As outlined, the process would be something like authorizing a charter school but, whereas a charter high school grants its own credits and diploma, “Learn Everywhere” groups, as they are called, would have the authority to create credits anywhere in the state – in Laconia, Bow, Salem, Hanover, any place.

Currently each New Hampshire school board constructs a high school diploma that meets state standards while reflecting its community values, its student body and its plan for meeting their needs. That’s why local control is the bedrock for N.H. public education.

The department’s proposed program turns the whole system on its head and says, in essence, that local school boards would no longer be responsible for the quality of their own diplomas. The State Board of Education would outsource the authority to issue credits toward our high school diplomas to any private group in the state.

That includes the local dance instructor and the math tutorial program at the Boys and Girls Club. But it also includes full-on non-school schools like BigFish in Dover. Or a for-profit enterprise that might otherwise have started a school could now, with a state board accreditation, recruit students across the state for its online courses and grant certificates that every high school would have to accept. For that matter, anyone in a living room or church basement could do the same.

In the extreme case, a student could get most or all of her credits from Learn Everywhere groups and get a diploma from her local public high school. Over time, if the program caught on, local diplomas would no longer have the same meaning in the eyes of employers and post-secondary schools. They would essentially be New Hampshire State Board of Education diplomas.

The remedy is simple: Allow the program to happen if the governor wants it, but allow each school district to decide whether to grant academic credit for work under the Learn Everywhere program.

Parents and school board members who care about the quality of their diplomas have many ways to make themselves heard on this proposal. You can write to the governor and your legislators. A public hearing on the proposed rules is scheduled to be held by the State Board of Education on Feb. 14 (the agenda and schedule are not set yet). If you can attend and testify, great. But letters become part of the public record as well.

Recognizing learning beyond the school walls, a path New Hampshire has been on for years, is a valuable contribution to education. There is no need to eliminate elected school boards’ control over their diplomas to recognize that learning. If the state board hears from parents and school board members, the board will surely reject the radical elements of the Learn Everywhere proposal.

(Bill Duncan of New Castle is a former member of the New Hampshire State Board of Education.)


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