Edelblut grilled during education hearing

  • People with signs opposing Frank Edelblut, Gov. Chris Sununu's nominee to lead the state's education department, wait for a public hearing to begin, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • Frank Edelblut (center) answers a question by New Hampshire Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky (far right) at a hearing Tuesday in Concord on Edelblut’s nomination to lead the state’s education department. AP

  • Edelblut

  • Frank Edelblut, left, Gov. Chris Sununu's nominee to lead the state's education department, speaks to people with signs opposing him, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, before a public hearing at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • Frank Edelblut, center, listens to a question from New Hampshire Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, far right, during a public hearing on Gov. Chris Sununu's nomination of Edelblut to lead the state's education department, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Monitor staff
Published: 1/31/2017 11:57:59 PM

At a tense public hearing that lasted well into the State House’s closing hours, executive councilors on Tuesday asked pointed questions of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s unorthodox pick to lead the state’s department of education before dozens filed in to register their support or discontent.

One-term former state representative Frank Edelblut’s nomination has been hailed by Republicans as a bold move to better prepare New Hampshire students for the workforce. It’s also been sharply criticized by teachers unions and the state Democratic party, who have called the businessman and former GOP gubernatorial candidate unfit for the job and disdainful of traditional public schools.

But in his statement to the Executive Council, Edelblut – who last year ran in part on a campaign to champion alternatives to public schools in his failed bid for the GOP nomination – suggested that whatever his political beliefs, his role as education commissioner would be to carry out an agenda dictated by others.

He called New Hampshire’s vision for education “progressive” and said he could help realize it.

“Much of the groundwork for personalized learning in New Hampshire has already been laid,” Edelblut said. “As commissioner of education, it is my job to work with the state board of education, the Legislature, and the governor to implement these policies. In that respect, I honestly see myself as the ‘implementation guy.’ ”

But Edelblut, who home-schooled his seven children, did circle back to defend his support of school choice schemes, arguing that public schools weren’t adequately meeting the needs of all students.

“Ask yourself this question: Why have we seen such a rise in interest in public charter schools? Why do we see a rise in the number of students involved in home education, and private schools across our state?” Edelblut asked. In the audience, dozens sat with yellow scarves around their necks in support of school choice.

Edelblut made an analogy to Executive Councilor Chris Pappas’s restaurant, and said that when customers’ tastes changed, the menu no doubt did as well.

“I suggest that the public school system is offering a product that some parents and some students are not completely happy with,” he said.

“We need to move beyond the idea that choice in education is a zero-sum game, that success of a public charter school is somehow a loss for a standard public school.”

But while Pappas, a Democrat, would joke later in the hearing that he appreciated Edelblut’s shout-out to his business, he said he didn’t quite agree with the analogy.

“There is a fundamental difference between a private business like the one I run and the one that you started and a department of education and a public school,” he said.

Pappas also noted that President Donald Trump had advocated repealing the federal law that prohibits guns in schools, and asked Edelblut where he stood on the issue.

“I’m agnostic, and again, I think that’s how I need to be, as an administrative function is to be agnostic,” Edelblut said.

Pappas then pivoted to Edelblut’s previous political campaigns, asking him where he would draw the line between politics and his role as commissioner.

“This is a non-partisan position. This is about making sure that our kids get the education that they deserve. That will be my 100 percent focus,” Edelblut said.

But when Pappas asked specifically whether or not Edelblut would then forego all Republican party functions or decline to endorse candidates, Edelblut said no.

“I can’t say that,” he said. 

Pappas also asked Edelblut to explain why he had testified against a bill that would have banned so-called conversion therapy, which purports help make gay people become straight.

Edelblut said he hadn’t been testifying for or against conversion therapy, but that he had simply questioned the scientific studies cited in the bill.

“I believe that I may have referred to the underlying support for that position as being unsubstantiated,” he said. 

Conversion therapy has been disavowed and is considered potentially harmful by basically all major professional mental health organizations in the country.

The most common concern aired about Edelblut surrounds his lack of professional experience in education, a stark departure from his predecessors.

But in response to questions from Republican council Joseph Kenney, Edelblut pointed to his bachelor’s degree in business, license as a certified public accountant and master’s degree in theology as “advanced education achievements.”

“The experience in the statute doesn’t say ‘experience in the public school system.’ It says experience,” Edelblut argued. “Experience comes in various forms.”

In the most tense exchange of the hearing, Democratic Councilor Andru Volinsky pointedly asked Edelblut about his background in public education, his religious worldview, and his political ambitions.

Volinksy’s questioning at one point drew a rebuke from his two of his Republican colleagues on the council, David Wheeler and Russell Prescott, who chided him for taking too long and accused him of grandstanding. 

“This is lookin’ more and more like a dog and pony show,” Wheeler said.

Volinsky, a lawyer who litigated landmark state education funding cases before the New Hampshire Supreme court, staged his question period much like a court-room cross-examination, even using a poster board and easel to illustrate his points. 

He noted that Edelblut sat on the board of Patrick Henry College, a private Christian liberal arts school in Virginia. Volinksy said the school had an “oath of faith” that all of its “agents” needed to sign, which includes a belief in creationism over evolution.

“You will be the chief educator to whom all of the science teachers in our state will report. Do you subscribe to this such that the science teachers need to worry about whether you will require creationism to be taught alongside evolution?” Volinsky asked.

Edelblut said he didn’t remember every signing the statement, and that besides, that curriculum was not under the commissioner’s purview but instead up to local school boards and teachers. 

“If you as commissioner had a local school that was insistent upon teaching creationism on par with evolution in their life sciences curriculum, you wouldn’t have any concern about that?" Volinksy pressed.

“Whether or not I would have concern is irrelevant. I would not have jurisdiction,” Edelblut answered. 

Volinksy also noted the college’s writings where marriage was concerned, and asked Edelblut if he would, in his role as commissioner, “believe, and act upon the belief, that women are subservient to men.”

“As the commissioner of education is it my job to implement the policies of the state board of education, the governor, and the Legislature,” Edelblut said. 

But many came out to support Edelblut’s appointment, including former state board of education chairman Fred Bramante.

Bramante, who is the president of the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, told the councilors he was proud of New Hampshire’s vision for education. But he also said that the state had been slow to implement that vision, and that Edelblut could be the man to do it.

“Somebody needs to step on the accelerator,” he said.

The Executive Council is expected to vote on Edelblut’s appointment at their regular meeting today, but the vote could be pushed back to their next meeting. 

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3312 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)




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