New Hampshire Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was in Dublin on Wednesday night to encourage residents frustrated with their school district and property taxes to consider school choice.
Edelblut was invited by resident Leo Plante, who thinks Dublin should pull out of the Contoocook Valley School District and give annual $15,000 vouchers to parents to send their kids to private and public schools of their choice.
The plan would face multiple hurdles - including needing majority approval from voters in Dublin and throughout the district - but Plante argues it would lower taxes and give students a chance to attend nearby high schools with better test scores than ConVal Regional High School.
Others argued that test comparisons didn’t take into account different demographics among towns (for example, Souhegan and Amherst have fewer low-income and special ed students than ConVal), and that forming their own district might actually increase costs.
“I think that this is important for any community asking questions about their school system and what that future might look like,” advised Edelblut.
That future is uncertain in Dublin, where student population at the K-5 elementary school hovers around 50 students and is projected to continue shrinking. The ConVal School District has considered closing the school along with several others in the district, but parents say that move would cut the town’s lifeblood and isn’t guaranteed to solve the district's funding challenges.
Edelblut warned residents against betting on a stellar local elementary school to attract new families and reverse demographic shifts. The DOE projects that over the next decade, New Hampshire will have a third fewer school-age children.
“They just have not been been born; they are not being raised; it’s a fact of life. And so you have to grapple with that,” he said.
Edelbut praised efforts in cash-strapped and shrinking schools to combine ages in classrooms, a practice Dublin has had for years, and he encouraged residents to think about how choice - in curricula and in schools - could encourage students’ curiosity.
“Within our current system, we need to infuse choice options,” he said, pointing to his initiative 'Learn Everywhere' to allow students to get credit more easily for activities outside the classroom.
“There’s absolutely no reason that can’t happen in our public school system,” Dublin resident Balmeet Khalsa responded. “Our school systems used to be more creative until they were saddled with standardized testing.”
Khalsa asked Edelblut for empirical evidence that school choice enhanced education, and he pointed to neuroscience studies that show improved learning in untraditional environments, which he said he could send her.
Edelblut’s visit came as ConVal residents await a ruling on a lawsuit against the state over education funding. Commissioner Edelblut and Governor Sununu are named as defendants. A ruling in ConVal’s favor could require the state to increase what it sends to the region in “adequacy aid” by millions of dollars.
Edelblut said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation but he said that he believed “the legislature is working very hard to try to come up with a formula for funding schools. We have provided them with all kinds of information to support them in any way we can.”
A final ruling on the lawsuit, which includes ConVal and four other districts in southwestern New Hampshire, is expected next week.