Amid strong opposition from educators, a N.H. House committee has overhauled legislation touted by Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut as a “bold move” to improve academic achievement in public schools statewide.
Republican-sponsored House Bill 1671, as introduced, would have narrowed to four the 10 subject areas that now comprise the legal definition of an adequate education in New Hampshire.
One reason that definition is important is that the state is being sued by the ConVal School District and others who argue New Hampshire is not providing sufficient funding to ensure adequate education across the state.
HB 1671, as amended by the House Education Committee this week, now largely retains existing wording in state law on public-school academics. The bill is slated to be considered by the full House on Tuesday.
Current law says an adequate education is made up of English, math, social studies, science, arts, world languages, health, physical education, engineering and technologies, computer science and digital literacy.
Last weekend, more than 80 people turned out in Keene’s Central Square to voice concern about education legislation, including HB 1671.
“What a travesty. No band, no art, no foreign languages. What kind of school system is that, and why are they doing it?” said Susan Hay, a member of the Cheshire County Democrats and former member of the Keene Board of Education.
In an interview with The Sentinel Friday, Edelblut explained why he favors four key areas of public-school focus: math, science, English and social studies.
He said the bill was designed to help schools concentrate on priorities, while still leaving open the possibility that other topics could also be studied.
“Have you ever been to one of these time-management classes where they have the container on the desk and they have the big rocks and the sand?” he asked. “If you put the sand in first, you can’t get all the rocks in, but if you put the rocks in first, then you can get all the sand in.”
He said his analogy apparently rubs some people the wrong way.
“I understand that a lot of people were worried about how somehow that meant we were treating some subjects like sand and some like rocks, and everybody thinks their subject is the most important,” Edelblut said.
The goal was to help students, he explained, saying, for example, a student who has mastered English will do better in the study of a foreign language, and that an understanding of math is foundational to studies of engineering and technology.
He also said there is no connection between HB 1671 and the lawsuit brought by ConVal in 2019 and joined by many other districts.
Instead, the legislation was intended to improve academic achievement in New Hampshire, which ranks well compared to most other states on educational metrics, but has much room for improvement, he said.
Regardless of the original intent, Edelblut’s Feb. 15 testimony to the Education Committee in favor of HB 1671, sponsored by eight Republican lawmakers, set off a groundswell of criticism among educators, said Rep. Linda Tanner, D-Georges Mills.
“It defined an adequate education to the very core of reading, writing and arithmetic, and it took away what a lot of us think of as a comprehensive adequate public education including health, physical education, art, music and computer science,” she said.
“We got a ton of emails from people who were just appalled that they were taking some of these core courses out of the standards.”
This could prompt financially strapped schools in areas with low levels of property tax funding to cut courses such as foreign languages, art or music, Tanner said.
The disparity in educational funding between property-rich and property-poor areas of the state is at the heart of the pending lawsuit, which the N.H. Supreme Court has sent back to a lower court for trial.
Local property taxes account for the lion’s share of money for public education in New Hampshire.
In written testimony to the Education Committee, Debrah Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers-NH, which represents 3,500 educators and support staff, said those in her organization were overwhelmingly opposed to HB 1671.
“This bill would relegate a rich curriculum and deep learning opportunities to a privilege that would be open only to well-off students, leaving the majority of New Hampshire students who rely on a public-school education with only the ‘basic, no-frills’ education that the Commissioner apparently believes they deserve,” she said in the letter.
Subjects that some might consider “extras” often keep students engaged throughout the day, Howes said.
“We all have our stories of a child who becomes more successful in core academic subjects after something in one of those ‘less essential’ areas caught their attention and lit up their mind.”