It’s a pregnant moment for state education policy. Republicans control Concord, and Gov. Chris Sununu ran on a promise to change how education is delivered here. Key aspects of that debate – full-day kindergarten, broad school choice, and the power of the state education commissioner were all debated Tuesday by lawmakers. But the message was mixed, and decidedly less conservative than last year's election results would suggest.
Take the question over how much power the state education commission should hold. If any person could be said to embody the hopes of people pushing for educational change in New Hampshire, and the fear that public education stands to lose under GOP control in Concord, is it Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
He drew a crowd when he testified before the Senate education committee.
“I am not the legislature, I am not responsible for the legislature, but I am responsible for the department, and so I am coming to the legislature asking them to help me solve this problem," he told lawmakers
Edelblut wanted lawmakers to sign off on giving him clearer control over state education programs, personnel and finances. But they held back. Instead, the GOP-led committee voted in support of Democratic plan to give Edelblut some new leeway but defer larger decisions until a study committee reports back this fall. The Committee’s top Republican, Sen. John Reagan, was the lone no vote. Afterwards, Reagan predicted the changes sought by Edelblut unlikely to occur.
“I’d be surprised if you could get any changes made in the department of education. So this is the status quo,” Reagan said.
Meanwhile, two floors up, the House Education Committee was putting the brakes on another GOP-backed effort to change education policy, a sweeping school choice bill that would allow parents to use tax money to send their children to any school of their choosing. The education committee voted by a 15-4 margin to retain that bill for more work this summer. Sitting outside the committee room was Neal Kurk, the House’s top budget writer. He says that was a prudent move under the circumstances.
“There is momentum to do something but the policy issues haven’t yet been resolved and so the form that this will take is very difficult to determine at this point,” Kurk said.
But on a separate education issue – full-day kindergarten – the form seems to be taking shape. In another 15-4 vote, the House Education Committee decided to support spending more than $14 million dollars a year for full-day kindergarten, across the state. The committee’s plan is richer than that backed by Governor Sununu, but Rep. Terry Wolf says the governor, who has lately made kindergarten a top priority, has given the plan his blessing.
"I had discussed it with the governor and if the votes were there he was in support of doing it," Wolf said. "He just didn’t want to jeopardize the program as proposed."
All of these actions -- on kindergarten and school choice in the House, and on realigning the education department in the Senate -- were at the committee level. They could be overturned during floor debates. But together, they may suggest that education is an area of more cross-party agreement than anyone would have anticipated. Concord Democrat Mary Stuart Gile sits on the House Education Committee and has served in the Legislature for 25 years.
“It is a bit of a surprise but maybe both groups are getting closer to the center," Gile said.
Particularly on full-day kindergarten, perhaps. But this legislative session does last two years, and such bipartisan action could be short-lived.