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A back to school conversation with New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut

Sarah Gibson

Students across New Hampshire this week are beginning their third year of schooling during the pandemic. School officials hope this year will establish a new normal, but they continue to grapple with issues made worse by COVID-19, including staffing shortages, mental health challenges and academic setbacks.

Read more of NHPR’s coverage of COVID & the Classroom.

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut has played a central role in shaping the state’s K-12 education system since he was appointed five years ago, including overseeing the department’s response to the pandemic. To kick off the new school year, NHPR’s Julia Furukawa spoke with him about his vision for public education in the state and other issues that you, our audience, told us you’d like to hear him address. Below is a transcript of that conversation.

Work as Learning

Julia Furukawa: Commissioner, the Department of Education recently contracted with a career development and vocational education program that will allow students to be paid to work at places like childcare centers, manufacturing companies, and retail stores. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Frank Edelblut: Sure. This is a program that we refer to as Work as Learning. It's a little bit of an unusual name, is what I've heard from people. But what we really wanted to acknowledge is that when students are given the opportunity to engage in authentic work outside of the traditional learning environment, outside of the traditional schooling environment, the learning that takes place for them is really valuable to them. The way that the program works is that we have been partnering with New Hampshire businesses to provide work based learning opportunities for students, and these are opportunities that have been vetted both by the department as well as we've engaged with the Department of Labor to make sure that these are appropriate worksites for the students. And so students are able to sign up for them and engage in that work there. And when they're engaged in that work, these are paid types of internships. Well, actually, I should say some are paid, some are unpaid, some are career exploration, some are more authentic work. So there's a wide variety. But where they are paid, the department, again, using COVID relief funds, is able to match 50% of the wages for those students in those work based learning opportunities, up to $15 an hour.

Funding for homeschooling and learning pods

Julia Furukawa: In addition to programs such as Work as Learning, you've advocated for more of students' education to happen outside of traditional school with programs like Learn Everywhere and more money for homeschool and learning pods. So in your ideal world, what should the default public school experience look like in New Hampshire?

Frank Edelblut: Yeah. So just to clarify one point, there is no funding for home education programs. So I just wanted to make sure that we're clear about that. But I have been a big, big and strong advocate for learning opportunities and learning pathways for our students all over the place. And what we have to start with is the recognition that —

Julia Furukawa: Commissioner, may I jump in and ask, aren't those school vouchers going toward homeschool and learning pod education?

Frank Edelblut: Yeah. So none of the learning pod funds go to home education. That's COVID relief funds that we offer the learning pods for, okay? And then home education students are a separate class. So in New Hampshire, there are four types of qualified education programs. You can go to a public school, traditional or charter. You can go to a non public school. You can be a home education student, or you can be an education freedom account student. And I think what you're conflating is the idea of a home education student and an education freedom account student. Those are two different programs. They reside in two different parts of our statute. One of them resides in 193-A and the other resides at 194-F. And so they have different requirements for those different programs. So those are not conflated. And so I think it's just important that we keep those distinguished. Does that help?

(Editor’s note: Families doing home education can qualify for the state’s Education Freedom Account program, which is funded by taxpayer money. In its first year, the majority of students who enrolled in the EFA program were eitherformer homeschoolers or attended a private school. As of April 2022, all of the students in the Department of Education's learning pod programs were in pods based in the community and not associated with a public school district.)

Julia Furukawa: The education freedom accounts, that is taxpayer money that's going towards the opportunity for a student to learn outside of a traditional public school.

Frank Edelblut: Absolutely. So that provides an opportunity to craft a pathway for learning in any number of ways. But that may include, you know, a non public school. It could be that they're buying courses from a local public school to be able to get it. But I guess the point is that it has a different set of requirements around it, different set of accountability around it that is different than a home education program. And so I'm just trying to create that distinction for you. Does that help?

Edelblut’s ideal public school experience for N.H. students

Julia Furukawa: So then I guess I'd like to follow up on the question I initially asked is, you know, that since those programs are funded, like the Education Freedom Accounts, by taxpayer funds and that is money that also goes toward public schools, what should the ideal public experience look like for students in New Hampshire?

Frank Edelblut: Yeah, that's the great question. And I think it is a good and it's an appropriate question. Because what we're doing is trying to create pathways for students across the board. Earlier this week, I had an opportunity to meet with Secretary [Miguel] Cardona from the U.S. Department of Education, and we talked exactly about this. And one of the comments he made in his public remarks after our private meeting was saying how we have such an advantage coming out of COVID. COVID has had a bit of a disruptive effect on education. And so when we talk about that, we want our students to be able to recover. But what do we want them to recover to? Do we want to go back to what we were doing before COVID, or do we want to lead and move forward? And he was really emphasizing the opportunity to lead and move forward. And as an example of that he was talking about his own child. So he goes during COVID, my son was attending school three days a week in person, two days a week, not in person, but remotely. And he said, why couldn't we imagine a world where that is what a traditional school setting might look like, where they're in classes three days a week and they're doing the more traditional kind of academic studies. And maybe on these other two days a week, they've got these work based learning opportunities. And so they're out getting these authentic outside of school work as learning types of opportunities. So I think what I would tell you is that there's not one vision about how instruction can be reimagined. But what we're saying is that the opportunity is there for us to really think creatively about how we do school, to make sure that we're reaching the needs of every single student in our state.

Defining an adequate education

Julia Furukawa: Commissioner, we solicited some questions from listeners and several of them wanted to hear about what you think the role of the state is in public education. So in New Hampshire, that often boils down to the idea of what an adequate education is, which has to be funded publicly. So what do you define as an adequate education?

Frank Edelblut: Well, so what I do when I have to determine what an adequate education is, I defer to the Legislature because it's really the Legislature who has the responsibility to interpret the Constitution and implement laws that describe what our requirements are. And so if you go to the statutes, there's a statute RSA 193-E. And in that statute, the Legislature has been very clear, saying here is what we believe, as the legislative body, what an adequate education is, and it includes various components.

And what's really interesting is that over the years that I've been involved, I have seen changes to this list. And even just this last legislative session, additional changes have taken place to make sure that that adequate education is contemporaneous to the environment that we work in and that we live in. So, for example, a couple of years ago, what was added to an adequate education requirement included computer science and digital literacy. In this last legislative session, personal finance was added to that list of items that are required for an adequate education. So if anybody's concerned or curious about what is an adequate education, they can really go to the law and see exactly how the Legislature has defined what inadequate education is. And I believe that as the Legislature is debating and deliberating relative to these laws, they're really focused on what the constitutional objective is of that education, which is well rounded citizenry, citizens who are able to effectively engage in that process.

(Editor’s note: The Legislature updated the definition of an "adequate education" in 2022. Commissioner Edelblut testified in support of focusing the scope to core subjects. In the end, after advocacy from teachers, the definition was expanded to include music and visual arts, among other subjects.)

Restrictions on teaching about racism and sexism

Julia Furukawa: And when it comes to a well-rounded citizen, how do you factor in teaching about diversity, equity and inclusion with the restrictions around teaching about topics like racism and sexism that lawmakers have recently adopted here?

Frank Edelblut: Yes. So I'm unfamiliar with restrictions around that. The restrictions that you refer to are really anti-discrimination provisions that we have in our statutes, because we really want to make sure that none of our students, none of our educators are discriminated against in any way, shape or form. And so that's really what the purpose of those laws are, is to ensure that discrimination is not part of our education system. But when students are learning, we want to make sure they get all of history, they get the full perspective. And I think that's really what our teachers are working towards and that's what they hope to do for their students.

Julia Furukawa: I mean, but teachers we've spoken to have argued that this limits what they can talk about in the classroom.

Frank Edelblut: Yes. So I would encourage anybody who has questions about that statute to be able to go over and read the law that the Legislature has passed and understand how we're trying to protect our students and our educators from discrimination.

(Editor’s note: A New Hampshire law passed in 2021 prohibits schools from teaching that any person in one group is inherently superior or inferior to people of another group, or that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.” It was part of a wave of legislation backed by Republican lawmakers and activists across the country who took issue with public school curriculum on race, history and more. It is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit brought by New Hampshire school staff and teachers’ unions. The state’s guidance for educators on the law can be found here.)

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