Recently, I was honored to attend a meeting with Frank Edelblut, the N.H. Commissioner of Education. Held in Exeter, a group of concerned parents and grandparents from towns within SAUs 16 and 17 had an open discussion with him on the future of education in our state.
The commissioner knew he would be facing some challenging questions, and I very much respect that he accepted the meeting, showed up and listened to the concerns. He is both an amiable, intelligent gentleman and a smooth-talking political operator. As a parent of a child who will begin public school this fall, however, I left the meeting most concerned that the commissioner’s plan to “save NH’s education system” (his words) lacks substance, professional educator/expert input, data and peer-reviewed research.
There are many opportunities for improving NH’s educational system, and those that rank highest in my mind are funding and achievement disparities, higher education funding and how best our schools support students afflicted by the opioid crisis. As a former gubernatorial candidate, Commissioner Edelblut is well aware that the success and appeal of NH schools is directly tied to our demographic challenges related to supporting businesses in attracting skilled employees and boosting our economy by offering great workforce opportunities.
Commissioner Edelblut’s thinly veiled and ongoing efforts to simply cut taxes, budgets and spending, regardless of the short- and long-term impacts on not just students, but all N.H. citizens, are shortsighted and misguided. This should come as no surprise from someone who last year won the Americans for Prosperity – NH “Conservative of the Year” Award for being someone who “truly believes low taxes are the result of low spending.” (Americans for Prosperity is a Koch Brothers funded political action group aiming to dramatically reduce government regulations and taxes).
Ironically, during the meeting, the commissioner said he wanted to “save” New Hampshire by following the path of states like Florida in their “school choice” efforts. Florida’s failing education system ranks 46th for its pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 education. In the same poll, New Hampshire ranks No. 1. I’m not sure that emulating a state whose pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 education system is currently in school choice chaos is the best way forward.
Commissioner Edelblut has a real opportunity to make a serious and concerted effort to tackle the funding and outcome disparities that are far too prevalent in our great state. He should make every effort to learn how leading school districts in New Hampshire have unlocked the secrets to success, and he should seek to spread those lessons (and dollars, where appropriate) to districts in need. The answers do not, I repeat, do not lie in Florida. They are right here, under our nose. Our education system doesn’t need “saving.” We need effective leadership and strategic thinking to spread our homegrown successes throughout our own state.
I absolutely do not discount the possibility that Commissioner Edelblut could choose to alter course and fight for N.H. families and students, with a specific focus on the vast majority of those students participating in N.H.’s public schools, in achieving excellent outcomes across the board. This would be a great legacy and foundation for the commissioner’s future political ambitions. New Hampshire’s education system ranks anywhere from 1-7 out of 50 (for pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 education) depending on the poll or how specific data are incorporated. We are No. 1 in the widely respected U.S. News and World Report rankings. Clearly, we are doing something right in the Granite State, despite the vast disparities we must acknowledge and address. We must build on our tremendous successes instead of taking a chance on modeling other states’ failures.
Students must have the same academic opportunities to succeed whether they live in Bedford or Berlin. I challenge Commissioner Edelblut to take up this mantle instead of undermining our public schools by seeking to further reduce state funding of schools with the greatest need (see retained bill SB193, which the commissioner supported, whereby, for example, the state could pay $3,600 to Berlin families whose students opt out of public schooling, instead of the $9,333 the state is responsible for in education adequacy funds paid per student to Berlin public schools). He should take a serious look at how to measurably improve those schools by identifying what they need to achieve better outcomes and by offering a substantive plan for lifting those schools and the students they serve to the high N.H. standards they deserve.
Where New Hampshire could and should follow Florida’s lead, however, is in its impressive and successful efforts to educate Florida’s college and university students. The average cost of in-state tuition for Florida students was $6,360 in 2015. In that same year New Hampshire’s average cost of in-state tuition was $15,160. According to the U.S. News and World Report poll for 2016, NH ranks dead last among the 50 states for higher education tuition/fees and ranks 48th for rates of student indebtedness after graduation. If the commissioner wants to “save” anything, let him look to the futures of in-state graduates crushed by debt.
The commissioner did not have to take this meeting – and to be candid, I believe most politicians (let’s face it, he’s not a professional educator) in his situation would not have agreed to the intense yet respectful questioning and back-and-forth discussion for well over an hour that afternoon. For this, I sincerely applaud his efforts to hear directly from stakeholders. I challenge him to continue to seek out such input throughout N.H.’s educational system and to recognize the opportunity he has before him to work with both sides of the aisle in Concord. I hope he will seek to thoughtfully and strategically implement changes that will keep New Hampshire at the very top of the educational spectrum while addressing the disparities and challenges before us. Should the commissioner take on these challenges and loosen his single-minded focus on tax and budget cutting, both the commissioner and New Hampshire will be much better served going forward.
Jon Morgan is resident of Brentwood who is currently a cybersecurity professional for a California- based company. He is planning to run for state Senate in District 23 in 2018.