As New Hampshire has emerged as a beacon of conservative education policy in recent years, a number of right-wing activist organizations, political institutes, and interest groups have shown renewed interest in the K-12 education system. the state.
The NH Department of Education is a non-partisan entity, intended to implement policy and provide assistance to schools in New Hampshire. But conservative interest groups are giving a boost to some of the Education Department’s most controversial initiatives this year.
The two programs at the center of these efforts are Education Freedom Accounts and Learn Everywhere, both championed by NH’s Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
Education Freedom Accounts give taxpayer money from the Education Trust Fund, originally created to fund public schools, to families to pay for tuition in private schools, schools parish and other non-public school options. Eight states have adopted a version of this program; New Hampshire is one of the largest. Proponents say it offers options to low and moderate income families; critics say it distracts money and students from public schools.
Learn Everywhere allows students to earn credits toward their high school diploma through extracurricular activities, ranging from robotics club to dance class. If the programs are state approved, local high schools must accept these credits even if they do not wish to.
Learn Everywhere was rebuffed by Democrats and school leaders during its review. But Edelblut says it’s designed to strengthen the public school system, allowing students to earn credit for exploring opportunities outside of the classroom.
Conservative groups support lobbying and marketing efforts
While Edelblut testified and wrote editorials in support of both initiatives, a number of conservative groups lobbied alongside him. And now that the programs are law, these groups are helping to market them and ensure their success.
For example, this summer a new group called the Education Freedom Coalition created a website for the Education Freedom Accounts. This coalition includes national school choice groups, as well as Cornerstone, a conservative Christian group based in New Hampshire; Respect NH, who advocated against tax increases and for free accountability; and the New Hampshire branch of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. Americans for Prosperity also participates in open houses and community events to promote the new program.
Now in its second month, the Education Freedom Account program has significantly exceeded the original estimate and price for this year. It is estimated that 1,500 children will participate, far more than the 28 predicted by the fiscal analysis of the Ministry of Education.
Another initiative funded by Koch, yes. every child. is building a website for Learn Everywhere and buying publicity for it from local groups and media (including on NHPR). Their goal: to ensure that Learn Everywhere grows and becomes a national model that can be replicated in other states.
The Ministry of Education does not partner with or fund any of these efforts. Conservative groups take it upon themselves to build a parallel marketing infrastructure, in some cases complete with the logo of the state’s Department of Education.
“We want to make sure kids are in the right environment for them,” says Sarah Scott, field director at Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire. “It’s about meeting the needs of students, seeing them as individuals and making sure they can personalize their education. “
Groups supporting the Department of Education’s efforts are not typical players in New Hampshire’s education world. But their involvement corresponds to a trend observed across the country: education policy, historically dominated by teachers’ unions, heads of public institutions and left-wing academics in education, increasingly attracts attention from conservative groups.
Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, says right-wing groups have turned their attention in recent years to everything from gender identity issues widening the choice of school.
“The polarization of the country is more and more evident in the schools,” he said.
The school’s choice has supporters from all walks of life, although its most vocal supporters in New Hampshire are conservatives. The pandemic could change that.
Distance learning and the slow reopening of schools caused some parents to seek non-public school options and others to completely lose faith in the public education system. And conservative groups have taken note.
Republican lawmakers and public school critics are crafting messages about school choice based on a myriad of anxieties that crystallized during the pandemic, from disadvantaged students taking pain. delay, unfair school mask mandates, or critical race theory taught in schools (NHPR has reported that Critical Race Theory informs some lessons and staff training, but is not part of the public school curriculum of the New Hampshire). All of these concerns, say conservative groups, can increase support for school choice.
Edelblut is a strong advocate for school choice. A former Republican lawmaker who homeschooled his own children, Edelblut describes the role of the Department of Education as helping families access different educational options, be it a traditional public school, a public charter school, homeschool or private school.
It’s a change from the state’s usual education ministry approach, but Edelblut says the main mission remains the same.
“The reason taxpayers provide funds is so that students can be educated,” he said in a recent interview with NHPR. “And that is the Department’s job: to make sure that all students have the opportunity to be educated.”
Where one group sees innovation, another sees privatization
Edelblut supporters say he’s driving innovation in education here.
Many public school leaders and Democratic lawmakers disagree.
“Innovation is good, but innovation has to work in our public schools and also be aligned with a budget,” said Democratic State Representative Mary Heath, former deputy commissioner at the Department of Education. . “He creates a separate system.”
Critics like Heath say the ministry’s priorities reflect the right-wing free market approach to education. Edelblut himself doesn’t use this language, but he brings his business background to his job, and in the conversation he calls parents who are unhappy with their school district “customers”.
Hess, of the American Enterprise Institute, said private organizations with strong ideological positions should not hesitate to support initiatives that match their goals.
“I think organizations that stand up for policies they believe in should be welcome at every table, whether you agree with them or not,” Hess said. “I mean, my God, otherwise we’ll start entering blacklisted territory.” “
Edeblut dismissed criticism that he was building a separate system that caters to students in non-public schools. He said the majority of his efforts remain focused on public schools. But he says the laws that define his responsibility as the education ministry are broad.
“I have responsibility for all school-aged children in the state,” he said. “And so I can’t choose my side and choose which children I’m going to support or not to support. And it would be inappropriate for me to say that children who are outside a system should not be supported, and that I should only focus my energies and attentions on supporting children in a particular segment.
According to Edelblut, public schools occupy only one particular segment among many that families should be able to choose from, with the support of the government.