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The N.H. GOP Outlined an Ambitious Agenda on Education. How Much Actually Happened?

Allegra Boverman for NHPR

When Republicans took full control in Concord this year, they wasted no time outlining an ambitious policy agenda on a number of fronts, including education.

While Republicans were able to accomplish much of that agenda, they weren’t able to get everything they wanted. Here’s a rundown of some major developments in education policy so far this year.

NHPR reporter Jason Moon joined Morning Edition host Rick Ganley to talk about the year in education policy.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Edelblut's confirmation hearing before the Executive Council in February drew large crowds and tough questioning.

Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut

One of the most significant developments in education policy this year wasn’t a bill – it was a person.

Frank Edelblut was confirmed as commissioner of the state Department of Education in February of this year. The former Republican state representative and gubernatorial candidate campaigned on themes of greater school choice, more parental control, and a rejection of federal education mandates.

A financial auditor and businessman, Edelblut entered his new position with no formal experience in education. He and his wife chose to homeschool their own children.

He’s promised to bring his business expertise to the Department of Education as an “implementation guy” for policies passed by the legislature and state board of education.

While his appointment has drawn strong reactions from both sides of the political divide, it’s probably too soon to know what his impact will be.

SB 8: Croydon Bill

This bill would allow public school districts to use tax money to send students to private schools, if there is no public school available in the district.

The proposal is a response to a standoff between the Croydon school board and state officials.

Croydon, which does not have a public school for grades 5-12, began paying for a handful of students to attend a private Montessori school in nearby Newport in 2014.

The state Department of Education and Attorney General’s office said that was an illegal use of public money. A judge later agreed and ordered the Croydon school board to stop the payments, galvanizing school-choice advocates across the state.

The final version of this bill is somewhat more moderate than when originally introduced. Religious schools will not be eligible for public money under the bill and students attending private schools on public money will still be required to take some form of annual assessment.

Governor Sununu is expected to sign this into law soon.

SB 193: Education Savings Accounts

This proposal to create a broad voucher-style system in the state was one of the most controversial education bills of the year.

It would have allowed parents to spend state tax dollars that normally follow children into a public school on a list of other educational expenses, including private school tuition and homeschooling.

The bill was retained in committee. Had it passed, it would’ve been one of the most sweeping versions of this type of program in the country.

Credit Jason Moon for NHPR
Moose Hill Elementary in Londonderry is one of many schools that likely won't be able to offer full-day kindergarten any time soon -- even with support from the state.

SB 191: Full Day Kindergarten

State funding for full-day kindergarten has been a priority of Democrats for years. So it’s striking that it seems poised to happen under Republican control.

Currently the state funds kindergarten at half the rate as other grades, meaning districts who do offer full-day programs do so on their own dime.

This year there have been multiple proposals floated this year on how exactly to go about this – the latest involves paying for kindergarten by legalizing and taxing the electronic gambling game, keno.

But keep in mind that just because the state is offering to chip in on full-day kindergarten, it doesn’t mean that every district around the state will be able to offer it. The average cost per-pupil in New Hampshire is significantly more than the state is proposing to offer, and many districts simply don’t have the space to house a full-day program.

The momentum on kindergarten this year is largely due to Governor Sununu’s support for the issue. He says it’s needed to compete with other states for businesses and highly skilled workers.

Charter School Funding

Expanding access to charters schools has long been an objective of Republicans in the state. As budget writers iron out the final details of the state’s two-year spending plan, charter schools are likely to receive more state funding on a per-pupil basis.

HB 103: Objectionable Course Material

This bill, now law, requires schools to notify parents at least two weeks in advance of any “instruction of human sexuality or human sexual education.” Parents can then decide if they want to opt their children out of that instruction.

SB 43: Non-Academic Surveys

This bill would require schools to notify parents at least 10 days in advance about any non-academic surveys. These surveys are used by researchers to get data on topics like drug use and social habits among kids.

House and Senate Republicans are currently working to reconcile their separate versions of this bill.

HB 505: Independent Charter School Authorizer

This bill would have created an independent commission with a mission to promote and authorize new charter schools in the state.

Currently, charter schools can be authorized by either local school boards or the state board of education. Some Republicans have argued that a commission solely focused on charter schools would incentivise more applications.

The bill would have also loosened some requirements for who can apply to start a charter school.

This bill was retained in the House Education Committee.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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