By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
MANCHESTER – Claiming they may be involved in deceptive trade practices, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington went after PragerU at Wednesday’s Executive Council meeting calling for an investigation by Attorney General John Formella.
She was also critical of the state’s Education Freedom Accounts, saying the diversion of those dollars should have never come from the legislature.
Warmington of Concord got some pushback from Executive Councilor David Wheeler, R-Milford, during the meeting at the NH Food Bank in Manchester with Gov. Chris Sununu.
Warmington told Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut that state law, under RSA:292 prohibits any corporation from using the word “University” if it is not an incorporated institution of higher learning.
She said PragerU, also goes by “Prager University,” when it is not an accredited institution and that although it is in line to sell the state Board of Education on its personal finance program, she asked Formella to open an investigation into whether it can provide services if approved by the State Board of Education Sept. 14 when it meets.
On Aug. 10, the board tabled a decision after protesters and those speaking before the board accused PragerU of far-right, racist, and anti LGBTQ+ propaganda.
In an afternoon Zoom call with media hosted by Granite State Progress, Florida resident Charman Postel said PragerU, which has been adopted in that state, is “outright dangerous” and allowing it in schools “weakens the education we provide our children and out country,” and that it comes from Dennis Prager, a conservative radio host and not an educator.
Warmington, an attorney, said, “This is a statute that is intended to protect consumers against deceptive trade practices and I am wondering if there has been an investigation into whether PragerU can be offered to New Hampshire public school systems given the use of the word ‘University’ in its name.”
Edleblut – who on Sunday announced in an op-editorial he would not be pursuing another bid as a Republican to be governor and would focus instead on serving out his term as commissioner of Education – said the company has presented themselves to the state as “PragerU” and not as “Prager University.”
On its website, it reads “PragerU is not an accredited university, nor do we claim to be. We don’t offer degrees but we do provide education, entertaining and pro-America videos for every age.”
Edelblut said: “We will go back and take a look at that and make sure there is no problem,” related to the law.
But Warmington said it is clearly confusing to the public and the exact reason why the statute was drafted.
“I would ask the attorney general to open an investigation and it should be looked at as a deceptive trade practice,” Warmington said.
Formella was not in the room when the meeting was held.
Warmington further asked how many students are enrolled this fall in the state’s Education Freedom Accounts, which claims to provide families of modest means funds to attend schools other than public school or pay for homeschool supplies.
The legislature increased the eligibility threshold from 300 to 350 percent of the federal poverty guidelines this year to be able to get up to $5,000 towards educational supplies or tuition.
After this past school year, an estimated .13 percent of all public school children have taken advantage of EFAs https://www.education.nh.gov/pathways-education/education-freedom-accounts.
Warmington said as in past reports “there is an inordinate number of students enrolled in these programs that are students who were never enrolled in public schools.”
Edleblut said that it is his “understanding that these are parents…who are seeking educational opportunities for their children so that their children can be successful.”
Warmington said, “But the reality is that these are primarily parents who already made a decision to either home school their children or enroll their children in private schools and now taxpayer dollars are going to fund that decision.”
Edelblut said, “The reality is that these are citizens of New Hampshire who are tax paying citizens who are making sacrifices. They are already low-income families. They are making sacrifices for their children. But they are taxpayers in the state of New Hampshire.”
Warmington asked, “Do you review expenditures to make sure they are appropriate?”
Edelblut said they do review those to make sure they are aligned with the law.
Warmington asked if there was any review to ensure the students are receiving an adequate education.
Edelblut said, “We make sure that the students are receiving the education that is called for under the law.”
Warmington said this program should have “never have come from our legislature; it is totally a diversion of taxpayer dollars away from our public schools. It undermines our public schools.”
Edelblut said, “I respectfully disagree with your opinion. It benefits a number of students,” and he said it has been a very successful program.
Warmington said she would be opposing a request of the council to authorize an extension on an existing contract which expands the scope of services due to the legislature’s expansion of EFAs. It passed 4-1.
Executive Councilor Wheeler offered Edelblut congratulations on the EFA program and said he disagreed with Warmington’s interpretation of whose money it is.
“They don’t believe this is someone else’s money. They believe it belongs to the child and they, in many cases, are paying a whole lot more in property taxes than they are getting in this Education Freedom Accounts. This money doesn’t belong to public schools,” Wheeler said.
Executive Councilor Janet Stevens of Rye, a Republican, said she has heard from parents and others that also agree with Edelblut that this is “a lifesaver,” as he said.
Edelblut said it is to be in an educational setting that works for them and notes that some outcomes show these home schooled children do better than those in public schools.
Wheeler said, “I really resent the implication that because a family is of low income they don’t care more about their children than anyone else, the implication they are not qualified to educate, and make the best decisions for their children, that only public schools can do that. And further, I really resent the implication that if a child is not in public school and they only receive part of the money they would receive if that child was there, then somehow the public schools are losing money,” Wheeler said.
The council unanimously approved Mark Howard as chief justice of the state Superior Court system following a public hearing on Gov. Sununu’s nomination two weeks ago.
Tanya Spony of Brookline was also confirmed as a justice in the circuit court.
Sununu nominated Elizabeth “Betsy” Paine as a justice of the New Hampshire Circuit Court.
The council accepted the resignation of Mark A. Sanborn of Laconia as assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Services.
STATE REP. FRACHT SWORN IN
The newest member of the House of Representatives was sworn in.
David Fracht, D-Enfield won a special election and replaced former state Rep. Josh Adjutant, D-Enfield who was injured at work.
The election means that there are now 199 Republicans, 196 Democrats, two Independents and two vacancies in the closely divided House, which will meet again in January.
The council met at the NH Food Bank, the sole provider and distributor for more than 400 food pantries from Coos County to the Seacoast.
The meeting was held there at the request of Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas R-Manchester, and it was in District 4. Each councilor gets to host a summer meeting somewhere in their district.
NH Food Bank is a program of New Hampshire Catholic Charities.
With about 9 percent of the state’s citizens being identified as “food insecure” Sununu said the job is incredibly important for the welfare of the entire state and its 1.4 million residents.
“There is constant need and huge opportunities to make a difference,” Sununu said. He noted this is Food Action Month and “I think the state does it very, very well,” Sununu said.
However, at a breakfast before the meeting at its headquarters on East Industrial Drive in Manchester, Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, pressed the Food Bank on why they have not adequately constructed a proper warehouse facility in Berlin after years of requests and over $1 million offered from COVID-19 relief funds.
“You can see I am pretty worked up about this,” Kenney said in the corridors of the NH Food Bank following the breakfast.
He said Coos County has more than 12 percent of its residents who are identified as food insecure and that is the worst in the state.
Following the meeting, Dominique Rust, chief operating officer of Catholic Charities, the parent company of the NH Food Bank, said Kenney is very passionate about his constituents and the hunger issues many of them face.
She said he has offered to pull together a task force to see if a site for a warehouse can be found in the north country.
“I intend to take him up on that offer,” Rust said, noting past efforts to find a suitable location have not worked out.
Kenney, upon hearing Rust’s comment said, “they’re playing the same line,” and that they should not be relying on the nonprofit world but on the private sector and business community to help provide and secure a location, rather than having inadequate amounts of food shuttled to the location on a monthly basis.
Sununu and the council toured the facility prior to the meeting.
The meeting also involved some music provided by Cady Heckman of Manchester.