Loyal readers of this blog know that I have a special attachment to New Hampshire. We lived in the state for 11 years and have returned each summer save one for almost 40 years to the Peterborough area which is our home base. In addition to the annual summer deep dives into the political events of the moment, I continue to read the local newspaper, the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript, published twice each week but appearing in my mailbox at unpredictable intervals. Thank you, Mr. DeJoy. Recently, those newspapers have contained some news that troubles me deeply as an educator and a citizen. That is what I want to focus on in this posting because they reflect problems that extend far beyond NH.
- Last year the NH Legislature crafted a bill strongly supporting the creation and expansion of charter schools in the state. When hearings on the bill were announced, so many people signed up to speak in opposition that the hearings were canceled, and consideration of the bill was postponed. Later the House found a way to attach the legislation to another bill and got it approved without the need for a hearing. Last month The Ledger carried a story about the approval of Peterborough’s first charter school. It will be designed and operated by Hillsdale College, a fundamentalist institution based in Michigan and will presumably serve the families that find the town elementary school too “liberal.” (It’s worth noting that Trump appointed the President of Hillsdale College to the chairmanship of his 1776 Commission to counteract the “anti-American” aspects of the 1619 Project.) This strange practice of allowing out-of-state and out-of-district institutions to authorize and/or operate local charters is one that exists elsewhere in states like Michigan, and it has led to a variety of abuses.
- The Secretary of Education Frank Edelblut (more about him later) pushed through a bill providing vouchers for parents enrolling their children in private schools. There’s been a long history of rejection of voucher programs around the country, partly because they open the door to public support of religious schools. We’ve seen a national effort to overcome these rejections which has been largely successful, causing considerable erosion in the traditional separation of church and state. Edelblut reassured the legislature that the cost would be modest but the response to the program has increased the cost tenfold. My guess is that many of the recipients were already enrolled in private schools, but now parents can rely on public funds to foot part of their costs.
Before I go on to Item #3, let me pause here to point out how destructive these actions are to public education in the state. In many small towns, the school, the volunteer fire department and, sometimes, the churches, are the glue that holds the community together and gives it its distinctive character. Peeling students away from that core by creating new schools or enabling student defections to private schools threatens to unravel the fabric of public education. It happens that Peterborough is part of a school district with an already diminishing student population so the further loss of students will eventually threaten the viability of the traditional town school, which is what the promoters seem to desire. Up until now every child in town interacts throughout their school years with every other child, regardless of class and race. These relationships carry over into adulthood, and this loss of a common school experience will loosen those bonds and leave a less cohesive community.
- This last disturbing trend in NH education is different from the first two. It represents a trend that we can see happening across the country. The anti- Critical Race Theory epidemic which has reached fever pitch has a special twist in NH, apparently inspired by the Texas vigilante approach to protect against abortion. First, the legislature passed a bill prohibiting the teaching of “divisive concepts.” Since this is such a slippery term, it’s worth looking at the way the bill defines it:
(a) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;
(b) The state of New Hampshire or the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist;
(c) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;
(d) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex;
(e) Members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex;
(f) An individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex;
(g) An individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;
(h) Any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex; or
(i) Meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.
(j) The term “divisive concepts” includes any other form of race or sex stereotyping or any other form of race or sex scapegoating.
This grab bag list contains some items that are unobjectionable to anyone outside attendees at a KKK meeting, but many of the others are clear attempts to silence any conversation about systemic racism. And here comes the ultimate punch in the gut. The State Commission of Education has offered their support in the enforcement of this legislation by designing a questionnaire that can be accessed online by which any citizen can report what they consider a violation by a teacher. The State Commission on Human Rights is empowered to investigate and take action on any such report. To add a cherry to the sundae, the local Moms for Liberty group is offering a bounty of $500 to the first reporter.
Who and what is propelling the state down this wrong road? First is the aforementioned Commissioner Frank Edelblut who was appointed by Governor Chris Sununu in 2020 after serving one term in the State Legislature. He is a businessman with no experience or background in education. He has seven children, none of whom has been educated in public schools. This is a profile with amazing similarities to that of Betsy DeVos, with whom he shares a desire to weaken public education and tilt it in the direction of religious schooling.
Standing behind him and the Governor is one of the most unusual state legislatures in the country. For a state with a population of less than 1.4 million the House consists of 400 – count ‘em – delegates, elected every two years. I was dismayed to learn that the district Edelblut represented for his single term includes the school where I served as teaching principal for six years. It doesn’t make me proud.
The NH House is a particularly mercurial body. From 2018 to 2020 it was controlled by the Democrats, but it flipped in 2020 to become one of the most aggressively conservative bodies in the country. Strangely enough, at the same time the entire NH congressional delegation – both senators and both congressmen – is Democratic AND they’re all women. There’s no accounting for this split personality, but it appears that the strong libertarian streak in the Live Free or Die state is in the ascendance. Just last week seven members of the House filed a bill advocating that NH secede from the union.
NH seems to be headed down a road that is currently being well-traveled by other states. The healthy New England traditions of participation in Town Meetings which offer an immediate and strong voice in governance is being co-opted by a populist wave that endanger the strong sense of community that was one of the features that drew us to the state in the first place. It’s worth looking in this granular way with what’s happening in this one small state because it reflects what’s happening almost everywhere, often under the radar because of the erosion of local media. Education is one of the pillars of our democracy and it is slowly and quietly snatched out from under us.