My Turn: Sununu and the clever undermining of public education

For the Monitor
Published: 12/23/2019 6:00:24 AM

Recently, Gov. Chris Sununu signed an executive order allowing parents and eligible guardians of appropriately aged infants to come to work in participating state departments and agencies. This policy will benefit a small but important group of N.H. citizens.

However, as I write this, our supposedly moderate governor is also supporting strategies that, over time, will dramatically undermine New Hampshire’s public education system, which affects 165,000 students. Let me explain.

When our nation was brand new, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “locally controlled public schools were key democratic institutions” because they provided an understanding of our political system to the young, and provided adult citizens with an opportunity to actively exercise self-rule by shaping and administering their local school systems.

But running school systems requires money and the state of New Hampshire provides only a fraction of what is needed to each school district. This means property owners in less affluent towns struggle to meet the educational needs of their children.

The governor’s solution is not to be honest and recognize this, but to label such schools failures and to propose a variety of ways to further undermine them.

By using the attractive phrase “parental choice,” Sununu has supported legislation that gives businesses the right to have a percentage of their required state tax dollars directed away from New Hampshire’s public treasury and sent to the Children’s Scholarship Program, a private enterprise, which distributes these dollars to parents wishing to use them for private, often religious education with virtually no public oversight.

Our governor appointed Frank Edelblut, a successful businessman with no expertise or professional experience in public education, as New Hampshire’s commissioner of education. Edelblut championed school voucher legislation, which would have drained tax dollars from public schools and directed those dollars to private education, again with virtually no public oversight.

This legislation failed, but Gov. Sununu’s commissioner of education has proposed other ways to move toward greater privatization of public education.

Earlier this year I attended a State Board of Education meeting where the accomplishments of Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs) offered at New Hampshire public schools were carefully explained, documented and applauded by students who had participated in these programs. These programs are overseen by local school districts that grant credits to students who participate in them.

At a subsequent State Board of Education meeting the commissioner explained the program he prefers, his proposed Learn Everywhere program. Edelblut began his presentation by lamenting that there were too few high-quality Extended Learning Opportunities. I expected to hear the commissioner then propose ways to support and improve existing programs and to suggest ways to increase their number.

Instead the commissioner denigrated public school ELOs and championed his own Learn Everywhere program, which would have allowed public tax dollars to be paid to private educational entrepreneurs, again with virtually no oversight from the public schools that would have been required to award credit for these private programs.

The commissioner also enthusiastically supports public charter schools as incubators for forward-thinking, more effective 21st-century education. Having participated in innovative programs within public schools, I question why the commissioner believes it is necessary to establish an alternative and separate system for incubating innovative, cutting-edge, 21st-century approaches to education.

Make no mistake, these “public” charter schools must establish their own separate boards of directors, and are required to have only 50% of their teachers certified. These “public” charter schools operate without the oversight of local school boards and little oversight from the N.H. Department of Education.

As required by law, New Hampshire’s Department of Education applied for and was granted a $46 million federal grant which, if accepted, would nearly double the number of N.H.’s public charter schools, many of which are already struggling to raise necessary funds.

This grant cannot be used to improve or support currently existing charter schools. Two critical issues should be considered: Students who leave public schools to go to charter schools take public tax dollars with them, but they leave their former schools with the same capital expenses and the responsibility of ensuring that any special needs these students may have must be met by the sending school districts using taxpayer dollars.

In addition, once the federal money is used up, New Hampshire taxpayers will be left to continue paying to keep these new charter schools up and running. This reality, and not partisan politics, determined the decision of the N.H. Fiscal Committee to refuse acceptance of this grant.

Over and over again, our governor and his commissioner of education repeat that parents and students deserve educational “choice” in order to ensure “bright futures” for students. What they do not make clear is that many of the 165,000 students in our public schools are currently receiving an education that prepares them for bright futures.

Is this true in every public school or indeed in every private school? No, but the solution is not to abandon public education and create an alternative, separate system financed by our public tax dollars, but to effectively identify and address the challenges that exist.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is a champion of school vouchers, charter schools and the use of public funds to underwrite private education. This is a vision our governor and his education commissioner embrace. If this vision were to be fully actualized, not only would America’s public schools deteriorate, but so would our democracy if a continuing exodus of students from public schools to private educational “silos” were to be encouraged and facilitated using public tax dollars.

Echoing the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Dartmouth Professor Randall Balmer has thoughtfully described the place of public schools in our democracy: “Public schools have played an invaluable role in American history and culture by providing a common ground for children of different ethnic groups and religious persuasions, regardless of social class – a place where, in the midst of a pluralistic society, differences can be explored and friendships formed.”

This is a way for students to actually practice living in a healthy democracy.

If we divide our students from one another, weaken and destroy our public schools by failing to recognize what Gov. Sununu and his appointees are doing step by step to them, we will have lost crucial common ground. Our nation today is dangerously divided. More than ever, we need the common ground that public schools have provided for generations, where students can experience being not “us” and them,” but simply “We the people.”

(Janet Ward lives in Contoocook.)

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