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How NH Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut used his office in the culture war

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut at the Governor and Executive Council meeting on March 27, 2024. Seated to the right is Terese Bastarache, founder of the activist group We The People NH, who says she communicates with the commissioner regularly.
Todd Bookman
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NHPR
New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, center, and Terese Bastarache, right, at the Governor and Executive Council meeting on March 27, 2024. Bastarache, who is running for a seat on the council, founded the activist group We The People NH and says she communicates with the commissioner regularly.

In January 2023, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut convened a private meeting in Concord to “discuss explicit materials in school libraries.” The invitation — sent to about a dozen school librarians, several parent activists and one Republican state lawmaker — said the commissioner was “looking forward to meeting with everyone for his/her input and having open and respectful dialogue.”

Stephanie Charlefour traveled about an hour from her home in southwestern New Hampshire to attend. With book bans sweeping across the country, the Westmoreland School librarian hoped the meeting would be a chance to offer context on how she and her colleagues deal with controversial titles.

“We have a core belief that no matter our personal preferences, no matter our personal beliefs, that every reader has the right to have access to books that fit them at their time of need,” Charlefour told NHPR. “And that includes teens, and that includes kids.”

But what happened that day felt more like an attack, Charlefour said.

Edelblut handed out packets of paper — stamped “confidential” — that included passages from New Hampshire’s obscenity laws and excerpts from frequently banned books, including “Gender Queer” and “Beyond Magenta: Transgender teens speak out.” The commissioner began reading controversial passages from those books aloud to the group.

At one point, Edelblut asked why he — as the state’s top education official — couldn’t decide which books are inappropriate for school libraries. And while he assured the librarians that they weren’t in danger of legal repercussions, he suggested he could enlist the help of state attorneys to remove books he deemed offensive.

“He had talked about taking those [books] over to the attorney general, to take them to court, to have them removed from every shelf in the state of New Hampshire,” according to Charlefour and another librarian who attended the meeting. (The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office declined to comment on whether Edelblut followed through on this, citing the attorney-client relationship between the office and state agencies.)

One participant, Republican Rep. John Sellers, of Bristol, says he thought the meeting’s goal was to start a working group on potential book restrictions, but the librarians wouldn’t entertain any suggestions. Betsy Harrington, of Deering, said the discussion was meant for parents like herself to feel “heard.” She has campaigned to remove books with sexual content, sometimes carrying a sign that reads “GET PORN OUT OF SCHOOLS!” Harrington said Edelblut is one of the few allies she’s found in her efforts to challenge library materials.

“I think that I’m a typical mom who would like to see an array of different things available,” Harrington said. “But I don’t want it to be grossly sexually explicit.”

An excerpt of the documents distributed at the meeting.
An excerpt of the documents distributed at the January 2023 meeting about library material. The highlights were included when the education department provided the document to NHPR, in response to a records request.

The meeting Edelblut organized was a microcosm of the education culture wars playing out across the country. It was also one in a string of attempts by Edelblut to control what students are exposed to in local public schools.

New Hampshire’s education commissioner doesn’t have the power to restrict which books go on library shelves or which diversity initiatives schools implement. Those issues are largely decided by locally elected school board members.

But through interviews with nearly 40 educators, parents and political activists — and hundreds of pages of public records — New Hampshire Public Radio and APM Reports have found that Edelblut has leveraged his oversight powers to elevate grievances against the public education system and, at times, individual educators.

He’s challenged superintendents on whether certain books depicting LGBTQ protagonists, sex and sexual abuse are harming the mental health of New Hampshire’s students. And he has repeatedly directed the state’s teacher misconduct investigator — the same official responsible for looking into allegations of abuse or discrimination — to review complaints about school materials.

In recent years, Edelblut has also cautioned one superintendent against using “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of “Columbus Day” on school calendars. Another educator, who is transgender, says the commissioner’s criticism of how they discussed LGBTQ issues in class was the final straw that prompted them to leave teaching for good.

The commissioner declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to a detailed list of questions about the incidents NHPR documented in our reporting. An education department spokesperson instead offered a brief statement.

“Like all state agencies, the New Hampshire Department of Education often receives concerns from constituents,” the spokesperson wrote. “The Department, including Commissioner Frank Edelblut, takes all constituent concerns seriously and works to respond to their inquiries. We are committed to ensuring the safety of children and work diligently with our partners to address any and all concerns swiftly and with fairness to all involved.”

After this story published, Edelblut published an op-ed on the state education department website where he wrote, in part: 

“When I assumed this role in 2017, I committed to being 100% focused on the children. Thank God someone is looking out for the children.”

READ MORE: A trans teacher asked students about pronouns. Then the education commissioner found out.

Edelbut’s willingness to field complaints has made him a champion among those who say public schools are ignoring concerns about classroom content and policies that conflict with their beliefs. And given New Hampshire’s expansion of school choice, dissatisfied families can more easily withdraw their kids from those schools and go elsewhere.

“The biggest complaint from parents is that the school isn’t responsive,” says Drew Cline, who chairs the New Hampshire State Board of Education and runs a prominent libertarian think tank. “When you have a commissioner of education trying to make the schools more responsive, he is trying to fix what parents are complaining about so parents don’t leave.”

But some who’ve been on the receiving end of Edelblut’s inquiries say he is intimidating educators and undermining efforts to make public schools welcoming to everyone.

“In public ed, you are exposed to people from all walks of life, and people with different faiths and people with different beliefs,” says Bedford Superintendent Mike Fournier, who runs a district of more than 4,000 students. “You can either choose to take your value system and try and force that on other people, or you can decide that there are some values that we all share together, and use that as your foundation.”

Stephanie Charlefour has been a librarian for 15 years. She reads about 200 books each year — including dozens of titles she buys for the Westmoreland School, where she’s worked as the elementary and middle school librarian for the last two years. She previously served as director of Gay-Kimball Library in Troy, where she is pictured here.
Bill Gnade
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Keene Sentinel file photo
Stephanie Charlefour has been a librarian for 15 years. She reads about 200 books each year — including titles she picks for the Westmoreland School, where she’s worked as the librarian for the last two years. She previously served as director of Gay-Kimball Library in Troy, where she is pictured here.

‘This is a nonpartisan position’

Edelblut was tapped to lead the state education department in 2017 by his former political rival, Gov. Chris Sununu, who narrowly beat him in a Republican gubernatorial primary a few months before. The choice provoked immediate uproar among Democrats and teachers unions, who took issue with Edelblut’s political ideology and his lack of experience working in or with public schools.

As a candidate for governor in 2016, Edelblut made a name for himself as a political outsider and a favorite of social conservatives. He advocated for what he called “lowercase 'libertarian' issues of low taxes, limited government, local control of schools, personal responsibility.” His resume also includes a stint as state representative, eighteen years as founder and CEO of an international auditing firm and at least seven years on the board that raised money for Patrick Henry College, a conservative Christian college in Virginia. All seven of his children were homeschooled.

At his confirmation hearing, Edelblut pledged to keep politics out of the job.

“This is a nonpartisan position,” he said. “This is about making sure that our kids get the education that they deserve. And that will be my one hundred percent focus.”

But in the last seven years, he’s kept close ties to conservative causes in New Hampshire and beyond, partnering with organizations like PragerU and 1776 Unites on material for local students. He’s been a headliner for Republican and libertarian groups in his official capacity as education commissioner. At an October 2021 forum hosted by a group that fought against COVID-19 mitigation measures, Edelblut encouraged parents to push back against local district policies on those issues. The governor later said it was “inappropriate” for the commissioner to attend in his official capacity, “given this fringe group’s history and support of anti-government actions.”

Supporters and critics alike describe Edelblut as a populist who has responded to growing disillusionment with public institutions, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. He’s said he views parents as customers of the state’s education system, and it’s his duty to ensure they’re satisfied.

Terese Bastarache, a staunch critic of the Sununu administration, said she and other activists talk to Edelblut regularly. Bastarache rose to prominence during the pandemic for her protests around COVID-19 vaccines and later founded We The People NH, a group of “concerned and fed up Patriots” that has protested against a wide range of issues, including certain library books and drag queen story hours. While Bastarache wishes Edelblut would take more action to restrict books and other material, she said he has encouraged her to organize parents around those concerns.

“He actually in conversation said: ’I really want to fight this fight for the parents. And I just need there to be more attention brought to it so that when I go to fight the fight, I’ll have some more support,’” Bastarache told NHPR.

Edelblut also hasn’t shied away from fights over education policy at the State House. In 2021, he supported a new law that banned schools from teaching that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” It mirrored policies passed in Republican-led states across the country, as well as an “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” issued by former President Donald Trump. In an op-ed, Edelblut framed the law as a way to “ensure that our students learn about the evils of racism without teaching them to be racists.”

Critics, including local teachers unions and the ACLU of New Hampshire, are suing the state over the law. They say it has a chilling effect, in part because it’s so vague that teachers don’t know what will get them in trouble.

While educators who run afoul of the law could lose their teaching credentials, none have faced formal sanctions for violating it. But the statute has led to a wave of complaints from Edelblut and others concerned about classroom content and library books. A few months after the law went into effect, a local Moms For Liberty chapter offered “$500 for the person that first successfully catches a public school teacher breaking this law.”

Casey McDermott
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NHPR
Former gubernatorial rivals Frank Edelblut and Chris Sununu vowed to work together after the latter won a tight race to become the Republican party's nominee in 2016. A few months later, after becoming governor, Sununu nominated Edelblut to serve as his education commissioner.

Investigating abuse, misconduct — and books

As Edeblut has heightened the state’s scrutiny over classroom content, he also directed the department’s misconduct investigator to pursue specific complaints against educators.

That investigator, Richard Farrell, spent 30 years with the New Hampshire State Police before moving to the education department. He’s part of the team that investigates serious allegations related to the educator code of conduct, including physical and sexual abuse of students. School officials say Farrell, who also worked briefly as a high school English teacher, is cordial and honest — but when they hear from him, they know it’s not good news.

Under Edelblut’s tenure and sometimes at his behest, Farrell has contacted superintendents about everything from Beyoncé and Childish Gambino music videos shown in a high school social studies class, to a middle school poster that said “Read Banned Books,” to a permission slip that mentioned learning about "activism” during a field trip about the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s not clear whether the education department triages the complaints that come to Farrell, or whether he contacts schools about each complaint he receives, regardless of whether it falls within his jurisdiction. Farrell has acknowledged that parents — and at times, school districts — “weaponize the code of conduct.”

“We want to stay within the bounds of the code, and weaponizing it is really a bad idea,” he said in a legislative committee hearing in 2023.

At the time, Farrell was offering testimony on a bill that would have expanded the education department’s investigative powers, including the right to subpoena educators. Department officials have encouraged it, saying it would be used as a “last resort” when dealing with uncooperative school districts. Lawmakers have twice rejected the idea.

Since 2022, NHPR has asked the state education department for more clarity on how it fields and pursues complaints about curriculum, books and potential teacher misconduct. The department said it could not give NHPR records related to any complaint that led to a formal investigation but could supply records related to complaints that fell short of that threshold. So far, the department has only fulfilled a portion of those requests.

NHPR contacted Farrell to arrange an interview, but an education department spokesperson later declined the request and said they could answer questions in writing. The department did not respond to those specific questions about how it decides which complaints merit Farrell’s attention and how Edelblut, Farrell and others in the department handle outreach to school districts.

Some school administrators argue the department’s investigations into culture war grievances distracts them from dealing with racism against students of color.

For example, in 2021, Farrell investigated complaints about a middle school social studies teacher in Weare who was using excerpts of “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” a book by the authors Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, in her lessons about slavery.

Jacqueline Coe, the district superintendent, fielded Farrell’s inquiries. After receiving the complaint, Coe read the book and talked to the teacher about how it fit into the broader lesson plan. She decided the excerpt provoked an important conversation and aligned with state standards.

The education department never opened a formal investigation into the social studies teacher, but Edelblut continued to highlight concerns about the book in comments to the state board of education and other public forums. He even cited the book in an op-ed as an example of material “that parents have identified as conflicting with their values.”

Coe said the state scrutiny “freaked out” the teacher — and some of her colleagues.

“We had our kindergarten teachers not want to talk about Martin Luther King Day,” she said, for fear of running afoul of the education department.

Around the same time as the commissioner’s op-ed was published, Coe and other district officials were dealing with the fallout after three teenagers wrote racist graffiti in their high school bathroom, some of it targeting a Black classmate. The students were later found to have violated New Hampshire civil rights law.

Coe said she didn’t expect to hear from the education department about that incident, since it was being handled by law enforcement. But she was struck that Edelblut was criticizing a book that grappled with racism as the school was struggling to respond to that very same problem.

“We’re dealing with racial issues and trying to increase anti-discrimination, and having that culture and climate conversation in our school,” she said. “We’re like, is the message [that] we’re not supposed to be talking about slavery?”

This photo of books inside a Henniker classroom was included in a document cited in an op-ed by the education commissioner, as an example of "actual instructional material from New Hampshire schools that parents have identified as conflicting with their values."
Department of Education
/
Edelblut Op-Ed
This photo of books inside a Weare middle school classroom was attached to a complaint sent to New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. The commissioner later cited it in an April 2022 op-ed as an example of “actual instructional material from New Hampshire schools that parents have identified as conflicting with their values.”

Defining ‘developmentally appropriate’

Edelblut has also invoked state education standards regarding “developmentally appropriate” content to question schools’ book selection policies. Educators say it’s a nebulous concept to enforce, since it’s a subjective term.

But in at least two districts, Dover and Hanover, Edelblut pressed administrators about whether specific titles are available to students, and asked them to clarify how they ensure students get a “developmentally appropriate collection of instructional resources,” as those rules require.

“As you know, there is a very serious child mental health issue that we are all concerned about and working on,” the commissioner wrote in nearly identical letters sent to both districts. “Exposure to developmentally inappropriate materials has the effect of exacerbating those mental health issues that students are struggling with.”

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut sent nearly identical letters to school officials in Hanover and Dover raising concerns about the districts’ book selection policies.

The department’s scrutiny of Hanover stemmed from signs promoting Banned Books Week, an annual initiative coordinated by the American Library Association, displayed in the middle school library in September 2022. But it soon escalated into what Farrell, the misconduct investigator, described in an email to school officials as a “very intense inquiry.”

Dan Richards, a critic of Hanover’s equity and inclusion curriculum, raised concerns about several of the books featured on the sign and alleged in an email to a county official that the school was “pushing gay porn and pedophilic content to children.”

“I hate the idea of banning books in school libraries, but this is a case for doing so if ever there was one,” Richards wrote in that email, which Richards also forwarded to Edelblut.

SAU70
School officials in Hanover provided this and related emails to NHPR in response to a public records request.

He asked Edelblut if it was possible to file a complaint against the educators responsible “for a code of conduct violation,” a sanction that could result in the loss or suspension of someone’s education license. He also contacted the Hanover police and a county commissioner, alleging violations of New Hampshire’s obscenity laws, according to that email chain, which NHPR obtained through a records request to both the state and the school district.

Richards’ children previously attended Hanover schools. By the time he sent complaints to Edelblut, he had withdrawn his kids from the district and was in the process of moving to Puerto Rico. Richards told NHPR that he remained invested in the school district, even after moving away.

“I'm from there. I'm a graduate of that school system. I still have family who lives in the district, and I still maintain a home there,” he said. “I care.”

Richards said he complained directly to the school district but didn’t remember the person’s name he contacted. Hanover Superintendent Jay Badams says the first time he heard about the complaint was through an email from Farrell.

After conducting his own inquiry, Badams told the state he was confident the middle school librarian hadn’t done anything wrong. He said some of the books highlighted in the display weren’t on the library shelves but were available through an online database. Badams also acknowledged there could be room for discussion about what books were appropriate: “Maybe we need to consider content advisories on books as we do for explicit lyrics in music,” he wrote in an email to Farrell.

This photo was attached to a complaint from Dan Richards about the Banned Books Week display at Frances C. Richmond Middle School in Hanover. The school district provided a copy to NHPR in response to a records request.
SAU 70
This display in a Hanover public school library sparked a complaint from Dan Richards, a parent whose children previously attended school in the district. He claimed the school was promoting "pornographic material to 11-13 year-olds." This photo was attached to one of his complaints, and the school district provided it to NHPR in response to a records request

Badams told NHPR he took the state’s scrutiny seriously, since educators are put on notice whenever the code of conduct comes up.

“It’s like someone’s looking at your livelihood,” Badams said. “Someone’s looking at your credential and holding that credential and making a judgment call about some behavior, or something you did or didn’t do, that could determine whether or not you can continue to do your job.”

The controversy was never fully resolved. As Badams was dealing with questions about the library display, Edelblut reached out to flag that another book with sexually explicit content, the graphic novel “Flamer,” was available in the district’s online library. Badams asked Overdrive, the private company that manages the library, to limit the book to high school students. But Farrell told a colleague in the education department that this move would not “solve Frank [Edelblut]’s problem or concerns,” according to department emails. “Flamer” is no longer available in the state’s online library, but a spokesperson for Overdrive said it couldn’t comment on who asked for it to be removed. The education department did not respond when asked if anyone within the department requested the book’s removal.

 


Divided beliefs, divided response

As the leader of a district that serves many conservative families, Fournier, the Bedford superintendent, said he understands the importance of ensuring that public schools support families with vastly different ideologies. He and Edelblut get along, and they even attend the same church.

“I really believe that he believes he’s doing the right thing,” Fournier said.

Over the years, Edelblut has called Fournier several times to discuss concerns raised by local families. In one case, Edelblut relayed a complaint about a picture book read aloud to elementary schoolers featuring a family with two moms. Fournier said the commissioner also reached out based on rumors about the school’s policies for transgender students, which turned out not to be true. After the second instance, he asked the commissioner to back off — and Edelblut listened.

Fournier said the commissioner’s tone was never hostile. But he said his approach erodes trust and goes against New Hampshire’s ethos of local control.

“It’s just not appropriate,” Fournier said. “Because problems are best solved at the level where the problem is.”

“In public ed, you are exposed to people from all walks of life, and people with different faiths and people with different beliefs,” says Bedford Superintendent Mike Fournier, who runs a district of more than 4,000 students. “You can either choose to take your value system and try and force that on other people, or you can decide that there are some values that we all share together, and use that as your foundation.”
Ben Conant
/
For APM Reports and NHPR
“In public ed, you are exposed to people from all walks of life, and people with different faiths and people with different beliefs,” says Bedford Superintendent Mike Fournier, who runs a district of more than 4,000 students. “You can either choose to take your value system and try and force that on other people, or you can decide that there are some values that we all share together, and use that as your foundation.”

In Exeter, Superintendent Esther Asbell said Edelblut called in fall 2023 to relay a complaint about the district’s use of “Indigenous People’s Day” instead of “Columbus Day” on the school calendar. In this case, the person who complained to the commissioner had already tried raising concerns directly with the district — but they were unsatisfied with the school’s response. Asbell said she recalls the commissioner saying, “You might want to think about what you’re going to do, because this could cause big problems for you.”

Asbell said the calendars are usually approved by the school board without much fanfare. But she eventually met with the person who complained, and agreed to name the holiday Indigenous People’s Day/Columbus Day.

“It felt unusual that the commissioner of public education would be making a phone call about a school approval calendar,” she said.

Karen Thompson, a longtime administrator at Hinsdale School District in southwestern New Hampshire, says that a few years ago some teachers asked for guidance on how to better support LGBTQ students. So she hired a local professional development coach, who is transgender, to lead a training session.

Then Edelblut called Thompson’s superintendent.

Edelblut said several school staff complained about the upcoming training, Thompson recalled. After learning about Edelblut’s call, Thompson asked the trainer to change the workshop topic and not focus on LGBTQ students.

Thompson says when she later got on the phone with Edelblut, he told her several times that he wasn’t directing her to cancel the workshop. But she says she changed the workshop because of his inquiry.

“When the commissioner was calling you about something you’re doing that you think is right, and you’re sort of being questioned about it, you’re a little on edge,” Thompson says. “We want to make sure we’re not getting on the wrong side of anything.”

Since then, the district has never provided a required staff training on the topic. Ideally, she said, the education department should provide guidance and support to districts as they try to respond to new cultural norms.

“When somebody sits in a seat of power, such as the commissioner of education, I think it is their job to respond to the ever-changing needs of our world,” she said. “I think that’s incredibly important. How will we move our kids forward if we don’t?”


This story was produced with APM Reports as part of the Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include an excerpt of an op-ed by Commissioner Frank Edelblut that the Department of Education released after this story's publication.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.
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