NH Dept. of Ed moves forward with its own revisions to state minimum education standards

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After spending $75,000 to have expert consultants draft a revision to the state’s minimum standards for public schools, the Department of Education moved forward this week with its own set of revisions.

That document, introduced Thursday during a meeting of the State Board of Education, looks unfamiliar to contractors who have been working for more than three years on updating the standards, and to education advocates who have been following the process closely. 

So far, the department has declined to disclose the consultant’s draft, submitted Jan. 22, despite right-to-know requests. 

Now, a number of groups are scrambling to analyze the new minimum-standards document, which will define public education in New Hampshire for the next decade, before a public hearing scheduled for April 3. 

“We had some significant concerns with the version that was previously on the table and we have even more concerns with this one,” said Christina Pretorius, policy director for Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on education policy. 

The draft proposal “really appears to dismantle public schools and water down what it means to be a public school,” Pretorius said. 

In 2020, the Department of Education signed a $50,000 contract to “facilitate a revision” of the minimum standards for public school approval, known as the 306s, with the Durham-based National Center for Competency-Based Learning. That contract was recently extended for an additional $25,000, according to Fred Bramante, president of the center, who has been leading the revision efforts.

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At a community session in Hinsdale, Fred Bramante, former chair of the N.H. State Board of Education, elicits questions and feedback about a redevelopment of rules for public education in New Hampshire. Photo/Jamie Browder, The Keene Sentinel

The center convened a 13-member task force to oversee the revisions and, after educator outcry, gathered public input through 13 listening sessions last year. In November, Bramante met with the state’s largest teachers union for the first time, in response to concerns that teachers had not been part of the revision process. Based on that input, the task force drafted a revision to the 306s and submitted it to the Department of Education on Jan. 22, Bramante said. 

“The draft from Jan. 22 had work that was done that was thoughtful and intentional,” said Meghan Tuttle, president of the state’s largest teachers union, which endorsed the January draft. Tuttle declined to comment on the department’s draft because she had not yet been able to analyze how it compares to the revision she was involved with. 

Bramante, who has overseen the multiyear revision process, said there are substantial differences between the two documents. 

“Fortunately, the (Department of Education) put lots of our recommendations in their draft, but they also changed a lot,” Bramante said, adding that his task force is not taking a position on the department’s draft until its members can conduct a more in-depth analysis. 

Last fall, members of Bramante’s task force told a reporter that the education department would make changes in the drafts of the 306s that the task force had exchanged with the department, including to language around equity. Ultimately, recommendations from Bramante’s task force are not binding, and the department had the right to alter the document that was introduced into the formal rulemaking process, as it did this week. 

A question of trust

Throughout the 306 revision process, educators and policy experts repeatedly emphasized a belief that the department, led by Commissioner Frank Edelblut, cannot be trusted to protect the institutions of public education. 

Task force member Val Zanchuk acknowledged at a September listening session that many people worried the 306s, revised under Edelblut, could “create loopholes for people who had an anti-public-school bent.” 

That concern was brought up again this week by Pretorius, of Reaching Higher, who did a preliminary analysis of the department’s draft and outlined six primary concerns. Among them: The document removes references to local control of education and removes class size requirements, potentially leaving the state with no ceiling on class sizes. 

In addition, she has concerns about language in the document, such as replacing the word “instruction” with “learning,” and switching the word “shall” to “may,” which removes certain mandates.

Pretorius worries those changes could be used to alter the calculation of “adequate education funding” — a constitutional requirement for the state to supply to local districts, and a subject of ongoing lawsuits in the state. 

Some changes in the 306s are similar to efforts previously voted down by the Legislature, she added, including a 2022 bill that would have removed art, social studies, and other subjects from the core academic areas studied by New Hampshire students. 

“There have been legislative efforts to do some of this work that haven’t passed, and now we’re seeing shadows of that in this rule proposal,” Pretorius said.

Changes in class size requirements and specific subject requirements, including social studies, were not in the January draft, Bramante said, in part because his task force felt “we were not the right one” to make those specific changes. 

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Classroom. File photo/ Dave Cummings/New Hampshire Bulletin

Three minutes for the consultant

Prior to the Feb. 15 meeting, Bramante was hoping to present the content of the task force’s revision to the State Board of Education, he said. He offered, but was told he could speak during public commentary which is limited to three minutes, rather than having designated time. 

Bramante anticipates that the Jan. 22 document submitted by the task force, which he said was endorsed by the school administrators association in addition to the teachers union, will be made public eventually. 

“If there’s a document that’s endorsed and supported by the leaderships of the groups that are responsible for implementing (these changes) … I think that says something,” Bramante said. “I’m not telling you that ours is better than (the Department of Education’s). … I’m saying we put a group together, a very credible team, and we came to agreement on a lot of very serious issues, and, I think all of us would say, advanced competency-based learning.”

The state board will hold a public hearing on April 3, where members of the public can voice their opinion on the proposed updates for minimum standards for public schools, the only legally required opportunity for public input in this process. 

“That’s a big date,” Pretorius said.


GSNC 2 ColorFollow the Granite State News Collaborative’s series on Competency-Based Education to stay up-to-date on this developing story. 

 

About this Author

Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a New Hampshire-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington PostThe Independent, Oprah magazine and more. Kelly covers personal finance, mental health and other topics. She's currently working on a memoir about traveling the United States by RV with her husband and two young children.