By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
Change often goes unnoticed if it is done in quiet little steps.
Singer-songwriter Mark Erelli put it another way “we can live with anything, if it happens by degrees.”
For at least the past three decades, the public education system, once the pride of the United States, has been under attack.
The reasons, motivation, and money driving the offensive are often hidden from view and couched in talk of providing competition to make the system better.
And New Hampshire is no exception, although its public elementary and secondary education system is among the best in the country in almost every ranking.
The Education Funding Commission recognized that but also that not all schools are equal or offer equitable opportunities for students.
That should not be a surprise to anyone, since long before the Claremont lawsuit and the resulting Supreme Court decision told lawmakers to make it fairer to both students and taxpayers.
The push the last three decades has been to provide alternative programs and move public money into the private sector and now religious educational institutions.
Longtime lawmaker and educator Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, had enough Thursday and told his colleagues they needed to support public education not ravage it.
He said his grandparents came here from Italy to work never having the opportunity to attend high school. His father graduated from East Boston High while his mother worked in a Cambridge candy factory.
Yet he and his siblings had an opportunity to go to college and advance because of it, he noted.
“One of the things that made America great was the opportunity to go to school,” D’Allesandro told his colleagues, stating it was the foundation of economic improvement for families.
“We should never lose sight of the fact that the basic opportunity of a public education is portable, leads to improving and becoming better,” he said. “If we begin diluting that, to ravage that by cutting that apart, we’re doing the worst thing we can do, dividing people.”
The United States was not the first country to have free public education, some European countries once had free education through college, but a student’s path was largely determined by others, not the child or his or her parents.
The country’s forefathers decided long ago an educated citizenry is essential to maintaining a democracy and in the United States the idea has been to provide an opportunity for every student to learn, rich or poor.
The first public school in this country was Boston Latin established in 1635 before the American Revolution.
Today public education is not perfect, but its faults are magnified by those who seek to dismantle it to establish a “decentralized system.”
The quest to change the system in recent years began with charter schools, which were sold as helping students who did not thrive in public schools, and many do and the most successful are ones established with the consent of the community.
Charter schools were freed of the regulations and guidelines public schools must meet, like special education requirements, with the goal to make them innovative and cheaper.
But most charter schools have never been financially viable without state support to replace the property taxes that fund public schools, and who could blame property taxpayers for not wanting to pay for two schools at once.
School voucher programs have been the more recent attempts to expand education beyond traditional public schools, but have been a tough sell in the legislature, which until this year, voted down every proposal.
Several years ago, the legislature did approve a limited voucher program funded through business and interest and dividend tax credits offering scholarships to students and parents seeking alternatives to traditional public schools.
The program has been limited by the amount of tax credits available to pay the scholarships.
This year a top priority for the new Republican majority legislature is one of the most expansive voucher programs in the country dubbed the Richard “Dick” Hinch Education Freedom Accounts, after the late House Speaker, who died of COVID-19.
The House Education Committee retained the bill to fix some of the problems with the proposal, but the Senate passed a nearly identical plan and tabled it to consider putting it in the budget.
Gov. Chris Sununu supports “school choice” but has not officially backed the plan, although he would be hard pressed not to at least let it become law without his signature.
That is the most obvious attempt to significantly change the public education system, but there has been a series of other bills that chip at the foundation of public education, and particularly public money for education.
Several bills have already been signed into law by Sununu.
House Bill 609 allows schools and school districts to waiver education rules and guidelines in order to establish an innovative school program, and House Bill 194, which allows the Department of Education to release student assessment scores directly to parents. Currently school districts release the assessment scores, but bill sponsors say the process often takes too long.
Several more significant bills were approved by the Senate last week and are on their way to Sununu’s desk.
House Bill 282 would allow religious schools to be included in schools students may attend if their districts do not have their own high schools or other grade levels. The state constitution bars public money from being spent on religious schools, but a recent US Supreme Court’s decision could upend that.
House Bill 388 revises the process and expands the options for moving a student out of one school and sending them to another — including religious schools — due to a manifest hardship.
House Bill 71 prohibits superior courts from granting a special school district meeting for a collective bargaining agreement if voters at the annual meeting had turned down a contract.
House Bill 110 would have state education aid go to cities and towns who would then send it to school districts, instead of the state sending the money directly to school districts.
The bill’s sponsor said that is to ensure additional state money approved after a school district sets its budget goes to property tax relief and not additional education spending.
House Bill 140 gives parents a private right of action to sue a school district over its decisions, often involving bullying.
House Bill 242 defines an adequate education with additional inputs, as the current definition does, as opposed to defining it with educational outcomes as The School Funding Commission proposed last year.
Several bills that reflected the commission’s recommendations for defining an adequate education and changing the funding system were killed in the House and Senate this year.
Another bill would require schools to accept coursework from other schools with sponsors saying some districts deny outside course work with little reason.
Many of these bills are small steps but add up to an attempt to overhaul the current system when there is less money being spent in the proposed two-year operating budget on public education.
While the state’s charter schools are “fulling funded,” state aid to traditional public schools is $90 million less than it is this school year.
The House decided to use $100 million in general funds to reduce the statewide education property tax.
The problem is that does not help school districts needing more state support but instead provides the same relief to them and “donor towns.”
Truthfully, the additional money was added by the House to lower the property tax shock of downshifting costs in the proposed budget.
This year the push to significantly change public education has gone from a trickle to an onslaught.
The onslaught is what prompted D’Allesandro to take GOP lawmakers to task last week for ravaging the public education system.
Garry Rayno may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Distant Dome by veteran journalist Garry Rayno explores a broader perspective on the State House and state happenings for InDepthNH.org. Over his three-decade career, Rayno covered the NH State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Foster’s Daily Democrat. During his career, his coverage spanned the news spectrum, from local planning, school and select boards, to national issues such as electric industry deregulation and Presidential primaries. Rayno lives with his wife Carolyn in New London.