Draft school rule changes challenged by Reaching Higher NH


Monitor staff

Published: 09-15-2022 5:27 PM

A group of educators and business leaders have been working for more than a year to revise the rules and definitions for New Hampshire public schools and an early draft has drawn concern from public school advocates.

The changes could affect “nearly every aspect of school operations,” strip away local control, and “create the conditions for breaking apart the public education system into elements that can be outsourced and commodified,” according to the policy organization Reaching Higher NH, which published an early draft of the proposed revisions online.

“It appears to be moving in the way of what we’re calling ‘unbundling of education,’ where programs are standardized and distilled to really their most basic parts so that private organizations can come in and offer those services, sort of like a breaking apart of public education,” said Reaching Higher policy director Christina Pretorius.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said the changes are part of a routine review.

“The rules are being studied to ensure that they reflect the continued evolution of education offerings in our public schools, to allow them the flexibility to meet the needs of their students,” said Edelblut.

The rules, known as the Minimum Standards for Public School Approval, have not been revised in full since 2008, although individual items have been amended over the years.

Edelblut has championed school choice policies in the state that cater to different learning styles and family preferences, including the Education Freedom Account program, which families can spend on private school tuition and expenses. His stances have been a source of contention among advocates of the traditional public school model, who have said the accounts take critical resources away from the state’s school districts.

On Sept. 2, Reaching Higher published an early copy of the proposed revisions, a 42-page document that highlights changes in red. While officials with Reaching Higher declined to say where they obtained the document, they said the Department of Education has sent it out to four “New Hampshire education professional associations” for feedback.

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Among the proposed edits in the long document are changes around school climate and code of discipline, locally-developed competencies and program elements, as well as changes to definitions and terminology. Some of the changes include switching specific school-oriented words to more broad terms, such as changing “courses” to “learning opportunities,” “grades” to “learning levels” and “instruction” to “learning,” which could broaden interpretation. The draft switches the phrase “mastery of competencies” – something that’s required for students to graduate – to “acknowledgment of competencies.” According to the draft, students must only show “proficiency” of competency, instead of “mastery.”

Other changes that appear in the early draft include the addition of a section on providing healthy food at school, the removal of the requirement to establish a fair and equitable code of discipline and a requirement that school districts develop a policy around “personal learning plans.”

“We’re reading these with the lens of ‘how will this affect our students?’ ” Pretorius said. “ ‘How will this affect our families?’ ‘How will this affect their communities?’ When it comes to equity, student protections, equitable learning opportunities, those are things that we really hold dear. Public education is for all kids.”

At a state Board of Education meeting Sept. 8, Commissioner Edelblut confirmed it was their draft document, emphasizing to board members that it is still a work in progress, and shouldn’t be considered a final draft.

“It is disappointing that a few individuals have gotten ahead of the process and are communicating incorrect information about the good work of dedicated educators,” Edelblut said in a statement last week.

In November 2020, the Department of Education contracted with the Durham-based nonprofit National Center for Competency-Based Learning and its founder-president Fred Bramante to lead the revision process. Bramante is a former chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education and was once a Republican candidate for governor.

The $50,000 contract was originally set to expire in June 2021, but the Dept. of Education was granted an extension until June 2022 and then a second extension until June 2023 to finish the work, which has taken longer than expected. In a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu dated June 6, Edelblut detailed the delays.

“The project has taken significantly longer than first anticipated, due in part to the need for extensive stakeholder engagement and the time-intensive process in developing and facilitating a task force to provide the requested revisions to state regulations that exceed 70 pages in length,” Edelblut wrote. “The stakeholder engagement process is expected to continue through summer 2022 and into the fall, necessitating a no-cost extension of the contract.”

The contract calls for Bramante’s non-profit to form a task force to revise the rules to include updated language that “accurately represents 21st-century learning.” The advisory group has been meeting regularly since early 2021, according to the Department of Education.

Reaching Higher also expressed concern that the group has so far been working to develop the draft document without broad public input. Earlier this month, Reaching Higher contrasted the process with the process that led to the creation of the Holocaust and Genocide education rules from 2020 to 2022, which involved lawmaker-appointed committee membership, public meetings and detailed minutes that are available online.

Pretorius said Reaching Higher published the draft and an accompanying analysis with the public in order to have as many people aware and involved in the process as possible.

“This is a potential impact and we need to be keeping that in mind and we need to be keeping students and families and our communities really at the focus when we start talking about that,” Pretorius said.

A June 23 letter to educational leaders from the 306 Task Force shows that members include Bramante, Nathaniel Greene, Jeffry Beard, Barrett Christina, Carolyn Eastman, David Ryan, Steven Kossakoski, Brian Stack, Val Zanchuk, Mary Ford, Jacqui Guilette, Nathan Harris and Robert McLaughlin.

The Department says that once a draft is finalized, they will make it public, presenting the rules to the State Board of Education and it will advance through the rulemaking process, which includes public hearings and opportunity for public comment, before eventually proceeding to the state legislature for adoption.