As efforts to offer alternatives to public education continue to be discussed nationwide, one local organization is leading a grassroots campaign to strengthen public education systems already in place.
Monadnock United 2018, an unaffiliated political activism group that has 20 members, recently released a video advocating for improvements to public education in New Hampshire, and opposing private-school voucher legislation.
Its members are also gathering signatures for a letter to send to state officials advocating for public education, and outlining public education initiatives they would like to see legislators, the governor and the state department of education pursue.
Monadnock United 2018 timed the release of the video and the letter to ensure that local voices could be heard before the full Legislature meets in January, according to Sam Osherson, a coordinator for the organization who lives in Nelson.
The informal citizens group first formed in 2012, when it ran newspaper advertisements in support of President Barack Obama’s re-election, and did the same in support of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senate candidate Maggie Hassan in 2016.
Following the 2016 election, the group decided to stay active outside of election season to help citizens and voters become involved in politics and advocate for issues important to their communities, Osherson said.
When N.H. Senate Bill 193, which would allow parents in New Hampshire to use state adequacy funds for private school tuition, was introduced last January, Monadnock United 2018 submitted a letter of opposition signed by 500 New Hampshire residents to Gov. Chris Sununu and N.H. Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
“We believe that public education is foundational to American democracy. It’s a melting pot. When you go to a public school, you meet people from all social classes, you meet people who are different from you. You learn what it’s like to be a citizen living in a diverse community,” Osherson said. “We also believe that public education is important economically, that a good public education drives economic growth.”
The bill passed the state Senate in March, but was retained in the House Education Committee for further study.
Proponents of the legislation say it would give parents more choices for their children’s education, especially for students who may need a nontraditional setting to effectively learn. They also assert that it would improve spending accountability in public schools across the state.
Critics, including Monadnock United 2018, say that money would be diverted away from public schools that are already in need of more funds, and that because of the bill’s implicit inclusion of religious schools, the measure would blur the line between church and state.
With the start of the new legislative session, the group is renewing efforts to advocate for public education. The group’s latest letter outlines public education initiatives Monadnock United 2018 wants the state Legislature to support, including free all-day kindergarten for all children, lower tuition at community colleges and in the state university system, and expanded access to technical education, among others.
“The policies we recommend are the ones we want the education committee and the Legislature to focus on now, and to vote into law in January, not the revised SB 193 that the Education Committee is right now considering,” Osherson said.
The group’s goal this time around is to submit a letter with 2,500 signatures, Osherson said.
Members hope to reach that number through word-of-mouth outreach, he said, which prompted them to create a short informational video explaining the group’s position on public education.
“The larger framework for this is that small, local, neighborhood, living-room-type groups are the most effective form of political action. We are not trying to organize large rallies and demonstrations,” Osherson said. “We believe that warm outreach, neighbor to neighbor, is what helps people feel safe and grounded in this polarized political environment.”
While the new letter doesn’t specifically address SB 193, Osherson said that Monadnock United 2018 would oppose any future efforts to revive a school voucher bill.
N.H. Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, noted that though the bill has been retained in the House Education Committee, there’s still a chance that the House could vote on a revised version during this legislative session.
Kahn said he supports Monadnock United’s position on the legislation.
“I agree with the group’s efforts. The bill and the concept would alter the education landscape in the state significantly, and not in a positive way, in my feeling,” he said. “It becomes much more costly, it dilutes the funding, and it’s been tried in other states where significant portions of the funds have supported religious school choice.”
Osherson stressed that New Hampshire’s public education system is not broken; in Monadnock United 2018’s view, it simply needs more support.
“There’s tremendous support for public education in this state. We should be proud of our public educational system,” he said. “There are problems with it, but it’s a really fine system, and if we all focus on it and devoted the resources to it that it needs, it could be an even better system.”