Action Alert: Education Commissioner & State Board of Education Public Comments Needed

This is a key moment for New Hampshire’s State Board of Education.  While the new commissioner is pushing for as much power as possible, the board has a new chairman, former Union Leader editorial page editor Drew Cline.  And key policy issues are before the board right now.

We need emails to the board and, most of all, we need you to attend the next State Board of Education meeting on June 8 to speak out at the regular public comment section at 9:00 a.m. Please choose one of the following issues and provide public comment to demonstrate that Granite Staters are watching.

Some guidelines:

Address the board itself, not the commissioner.  The education commissioner is not on the board.  He attends the meetings as staff to the board.  If your concern is some action of the commissioner, you are addressing the board because you want the board to take some action.  You are urging the board to take or prevent some action.  So it’s, “Mr. Chairman, I think you should…”  Or “State Board members, I think you should…”

Address a topic of current relevance to the board or that you are urging the board to address.  Currently, the ongoing agenda topics are the Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE) program and the academic standards, as well as how the board functions.

Address the substance of the issue (vs. the politics or motivations).   Disagreeing with the position the board or the commissioner has taken is important.  Talking about the motivations of the board members themselves or the commissioner himself undercuts the policy point.

Use written remarks, five minutes maximum.  Written remarks keep you organized and have a greater impact because they can be accurately reflected in the board’s minutes and be referred to in the future.  While five minutes is the time limit, still, the shorter the better.

Stating an affiliation is ok but does not actually advance the issue.  It’s actually better if you present yourself as a concerned individual.

Some ideas

What should you say?  Whatever you are concerned about and think is true!  But if you can use some ideas, here are some.

  • The Board did the right thing by refusing to revisit the Next Generation Science Standards  – You can tell the Board that it did the right thing at the April meeting by sending the message that, having just adopted the science standards, with wide support from the science teaching community, there was no need to rewrite them.
  • The Board should correct the record where needed in public discussions of the issues –
    • When the commissioner said that new science standards were not good because the theory of relativity was part of the old standards but not part of the new standards, he was wrong.  The theory of relativity was never part of the science standards for guiding instruction all children (though it was mentioned in the . [cite]
    • When he says that test scores are not available until the next year, you should correct him.  Smarter Balance test scores are available to parents a few days after the test.
    • He was incorrect again when he said at the NEC forum that NH spends $4 billion per year on public education.  The board should make clear to the public that the figure is $3 billion, less than $600 million of which comes from the State.
    • He says he’s in charge of home and private schools.  He is not.
    • The public needs to know that you know better.
  • Disregard Fordham – I would urge you to pay no attention to freelance standards reviewers like Fordham.  Many years ago they gave the Common Core State Standards an A and the Next Generation Science Standards a C, but we have no need to listen to political advocates from afar.  Hundreds of our teachers helped write the common core and thousands our of classrooms have put them to use over the past 6 years.  NH science teachers adopted NGSS way before the board did.  Our teachers know what is in the English and math standards at this point and they have made clear that they believe the standards are good.  Our teachers and administrators have accepted these standards and do not think they need changing.  You should listen to them, not a political advocacy group form Washington.
  • What’s changed? – Mr. Raffio, past State School Board Chair,  was in the paper talking about 10 years of having worked closely with the department.  Now, with a new commissioner and new chair, there seems to be a  war with over everything.  There has never been a question about who was in charge of writing the rules and adopting the standards.  Now the question is, who’s in charge here?
  • Check and balance on the commissioner?  Although the commissioner is new, he has made clear that he has big plans for education in New Hampshire.  He lobbied heavily for the voucher bill, in opposition to the School Board’s position and the governor’s position.  He opposed full day kindergarten, in opposition to the governor and the Board.  You are, according the statute, the board of directors of NH public education.
  • Call for opponents?  Why would the new chair dismiss the superintendents’ association, the Business and Industry Association and the teachers’ union as “advocates” against revising the standards?  The chair  said the advocates need to be balanced by opponents. These are the organizations most critical to delivering education in this local control state. The people who testified are the users of the standards,  they just happen to be happy with the current standards.
  • Who is it exactly who is calling for a change in the standards? – There have been nationally based political advocates opposing the standards for years, and the gov and commissioner campaigned against them, but the people know the impact (superintendents, teachers, parents and business leaders)  and use the standards every day have told you overwhelmingly that they don’t want you to change them.  So this looks like a top down call for change in this local control state.
  • Credible plan – I’m afraid that if the education department did a project to revise the standards following the plan they have submitted, they would just write what they want. The plan doesn’t  start by asking teachers what they would change.  They start by researching other states and countries.  Why not start with what’s wrong with our current standards? More than 40 states use them.  A bunch of states reviewed them and came to the conclusion that they were pretty close to fine.
    • Your plan is off-handed.  It doesn’t seem like a serious undertaking.
    • You say on page 2, “Engage stakeholders when and where necessary to gather feedback.”  What does that mean?  Why not say you will do a website like everyone else?
  • BIA – Business and Industry Association (BIA) Chair Val Zanchuk, said, at the last board meeting, “The existing math and language arts standards are sufficiently rigorous and when mastered, will prepare students for college and career success.” He called revision “unnecessary,” noting that, “We need the full engagement of the educational community in completing the implementation of a competency-based education system. We believe that an attempt to refine, amend, or rewrite educational standards  is unnecessary, of marginal value, and a poorly timed diversion of that limited bandwidth. It would reduce the educational community’s ability to engage in the more pressing issue of workforce development.”
  • NEA-NH – Representing some 17,000 members across the state, NEA-NH President, Megan Tuttle, at the last board meeting urged the Board to “reconsider” moving forward with the process to revise.
    • “After 18 years of teaching, I can confidently say that I have seen these standards in use, and that they are indeed effective in their current state. The use of standards helps streamline instruction, ensuring that teaching practices deliberately focus on agreed upon learning targets.
    • She went on to highlight that, “our current Math and ELA standards contain the breadth to allow our districts and teachers to exercise professional judgment in developing curriculum and instruction that promotes student success, validating New Hampshire’s long-standing tradition of local control; where parents, elected officials and educators work together to unlock each student’s potential…NEA-NH has been fully supportive of these standards…”
    • “The standards themselves provide wide flexibility for varying approaches to curriculum, lesson plans and styles of classroom instruction.  Our teachers feel empowered to make changes that might be a better fit with the students in their classrooms. New Hampshire’s ELA and math standards have stood the test of time in our classrooms. We urge the state board to leave them in place,” Tuttle continued.

Additional information for points:

In his recent Concord Monitor oped, Northeast Delta Dental CEO and former State Board of Education chair Tom Raffio described his 10 years on the board as a period of comity and productivity.  It looks as if that kind of record will be a challenge for the new chairman, former Union Leader editorial page editor Drew Cline.  Commissioner Edelblut seems to want to show that he is the one in charge.

The problem is that the new commissioner disagrees with the board and the governor on many key education policy issues before us.

First it was full day kindergarten.  While the board supports funding of full day kindergarten and governor makes it a signature initiative, the governor’s education commissioner says that research doesn’t support full day kindergarten and it causes increased misdiagnosis of ADHD.  When the governor testified to the House Education Committee in support of increased kindergarten funding, the board also sent a letter of support – but the education commissioner was not to be seen.

Then there’s the proposed voucher program, which would have been the biggest in the country.  The board opposed the bill as damaging to public education.  The governor has repeatedly made clear that he does not support this kind of fundamental challenge to New Hampshire public education either.  Asked by the board in February how he and Mr. Edelblut reconcile their commitment to private school choice with their commitment to public school students, the Governor, making clear that he was speaking only for himself, said, “I think you are misunderstanding what we mean when we say choice.  Choice is not public schools vs. everybody else.  Choice is really about making sure that each student has a career path…the idea that choice is about…home schools and private schools is a small piece of the equation.”

Asked about the voucher bill  by the Union Leader, the governor said on April 22, “When it comes to using state money for schools,…we have to make sure we’re not harming public schools, we’re not just removing funds out of those schools….I do have concerns when you start using state funds…to [fund] schools of a non-public nature.”

The bill has been set aside for this year but Commissioner Edelblut had been pushing hard for it, saying he’s concerned about the education of all NH children.  Actually, the New Hampshire education commissioner has no authority over New Hampshire private schools, home schools, or any potential voucher program.  However, in his role as commissioner, Mr. Edelblut has vigorously lobbied for the voucher program at state board meetings, on the radio, in speeches and in the Legislature.

Now the state board is in what apparently will be an ongoing battle with the commissioner over academic standards.  Although the governor talked about his opposition to the Common Core in his campaign, he told the board in February when making the case for Mr. Edelblut as commissioner that the standards themselves aren’t really the point:

“It’s not opposition to the Common Core…it’s not the standards that I have issue with and I think Frank would agree…it’s how we assess those standards…”

But the commissioner says it actually is about the standards.  He wants to rewrite them.  In fact, the commissioner says he will revise the standards whether or not the state board authorizes it.  What a mess.  The NH Department of Education would be calling meetings about getting rid of the current academic standards and the State Board of Education would be saying, “Pay no attention, folks.  The academic standards are not under review.”  Imagine you are a teacher preparing for next year.  What would you think?

Although the state board’s responsibility for standards is well established in statute, to prevent confusion in our schools, the board has requested a formal attorney general opinion to clarify the board’s authority.

This kind of friction over education policy is not something we’ve ever seen before.  It certainly would not have happened under the Governor’s father.  Education commissioners have, as you would expect, aligned themselves tightly with the policy priorities of their governor and board of education.

The Governor and the State Board need to bring this situation under control.  Executive Councilor Chris Pappas was said in the May 3rd Concord Monitor that the new board chair, Drew Cline, has “pledged to bring balance and be a check and balance on the Department of Education and the commissioner if need be.”  That is what the board needs to do, but it looks like it won’t be easy.