Op-Ed: The Dumbing Down of Minimum Standards

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Andru and Amy Volinsky are pictured with their animals in East Concord.

Or, the NH DOE and NH Board of Ed are at it again.

From ‘A Book, an Idea and a Goat,’ Andru Volinsky’s weekly newsletter on Substack is primarily devoted to writing about the national movement for fair school funding and other means of effecting social change. Here’s the link:  https://substack.com/@andruvolinsky?utm_source=profile-page


Fictional “NH, Where All Schools Are Above Minimum Standards,” would probably owe royalty payments to fictional, “Lake Wobegon, Where All Children Are Above Average,” if we decide to change our state motto.

Curious if we can pay with fictional dollars?

NH’s Minimum Standards for School Approval are under attack by the state’s board of education and education commissioner who would like to remove some standards and convert others from mandatory (“shall do”) to discretionary (“should do” or “may do”). The standards are administrative rules or regulations that prescribe what our public schools must have and, in some circumstances, what our public schools must do in order to be approved by the state. The standards, which some people call “306s,” because they are in chapter 306 of the Education Rules, may be viewed here. The proposed amended version is here. NEA-NH opposes the rules change as does Reaching Higher, a not for profit education advocacy group in NH that produced a webinar on the topic. Their positions are here.

Reaching Higher cites four concerns with the proposed revisions of NH’s Minimum Standards which redefine the purpose and structure of public schools. The revised version:

  1. Hollows out instructional requirements 
  2. Removes local authority
  3. [Engages in] Lawmaking through rules
  4. [Causes] Potential school funding implications

NH has a history of not enforcing its Minimum Standards for Public School Approval. Former Commissioner Charlie Marston testified at the Claremont trial in 1996 that he ran a three-person school approval unit before becoming commissioner and staff from that unit visited every school in the state. As budgets were slashed and the leadership of the state board of education fell to Judith Thayer and Ovide Lamontagne, the approval staff was slashed from three people to one part-timer and reviews were conducted entirely on paper.

Claremont’s Stevens High School lost its accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) in 1989 primarily because Claremont couldn’t afford to improve sub-standard facilities. Stevens, however, never lost its state approval. When Stevens regained its NEASC accreditation, it did so with a waiver of Minimum Standards from the state because it couldn’t afford to buy land and build a new building on property that met state standards.

Franklin operates from time to time on Minimum Standards probation. Its approvals, however, have never been revoked. Franklin’s high school and both elementary schools are designated CSI schools by the state and federal governments. CSI means the schools need Comprehensive Support and Instruction because the schools are in the bottom five percent of all schools in the state.

Manchester had Minimum Standards waivers for many years because it couldn’t afford compliance. This is what was so galling about the state’s process to cost out what it should pay for adequacy because the effort, led by Rep. Neal Kurk and supported by Speaker Sytek and Governor Shaheen, was based on the cost of providing schools in Manchester.

The state’s earliest costing of adequacy—which influences what the state continues to pay today—was based on schools that did not meet Minimum Standards in Manchester. The state then arbitrarily discounted this cost by almost ten percent and included gems like using only the cost of salaries and benefits for first year teachers who taught a theoretical maximum of allowable students in each and every class.

Think of it. If you followed the state’s approach, teachers would be fired each year and replaced with new grads who would teach grades of children all of which would be perfectly divisible by 25, because if there were 26 children in a class, the district would need two teachers each teaching a class of 13 children and this would break the cost model.

It’s no wonder that Judge Ruoff found the state’s cost unconstitutional in the ConVal decision that is now on appeal to the NH Supreme Court.

If Minimum Standards are so unevenly enforced, why do the proposed changes matter?

First, Commissioner Frank Edelblut and Board Chair Drew Cline are behind the changes. We’ve learned not to trust either when it comes to supporting public education. Remember, Edelblut is the accountant who “mistakenly” underestimated the cost of vouchers by 700 percent predicting they’d cost $3 million in their first two years when they cost $22 million. He now claims the program can’t be audited and the Republican legislature just voted to expand this diversion of public tax monies despite the supposed inability to oversee the program.

Drew Cline is the Koch Brothers favorite state board chair primarily because his day job is to lead the Josiah Bartlett Center of NH which the Koch Brothers also fund and on whose board Chief Justice Gordon MacDonald once was prominent.

Second, establishing Minimum Standards is how the state oversees local districts to which the state has delegated the state’s duty to provide a constitutionally adequate education. Of course, the state didn’t want the responsibility to oversee local districts in the first place and did/does everything possible to avoid and ignore this important constitutional duty. In our eighth and last trip to the NH Supreme Court in the Claremont line of cases, we challenged the state’s lack of an accountability component in its effort to define an adequate education.

At the time, the state defined the components of an adequate education and set some expectations, but then it maintained the right to waive all the requirements in its absolute discretion. Justice Jim Duggan writing for the Court agreed with us finding, “Accountability means that the State must provide a definition of a constitutionally adequate education, the definition must have standards, and the standards must be subject to meaningful application so that it is possible to determine whether, in delegating its obligation to provide a constitutionally adequate education, the State has fulfilled its duty…If the State cannot be held accountable for fulfilling its duty, the duty creates no obligation and is no longer a duty.”

Discretionary Minimum Standards do not create an obligation and are inconsistent with the constitutional responsibility to provide an adequate education.

Mandatory Minimum Standards also have a practical benefit. They prevent local school boards from slashing programs and teachers needed to meet the mandatory requirements in the state’s poorest districts. This isn’t a problem in NH’s wealthier districts because these districts far exceed the Minimum Standards.

Each year, taxes rises when school budgets are set. A lot of the tax increase occurs because the state shirks its duty to properly fund a constitutionally adequate education but despite this fact, increased school costs are often legitimate and must be paid. Health care insurance costs rise for schools like they increase on businesses. More and more children require costly special education services. Educators gain more experience and are entitled to higher wages. The state could mitigate these cost increases, but doesn’t. Someone must pay for the increased costs and that falls to the local property taxpayer.

When taxes go up, local taxpayers look for cuts and often local school boards point to mandatory Minimum Standards to protect the most basic programs. Edelblut and Cline know this and want to remove even this most basic protection from your public schools.

What can you do?

Make your concerns known to the State Board of Education. The process of public hearings is over, but you can still write to the Board. The Board will likely ignore you and do what it wants anyway, but it doesn’t have a free hand. Others are paying attention and your letters help to build a record. State education regulations are subject to approval by the legislature’s Education Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill) who has started to voice concerns about both the discretionary nature of many of the changes and the poor draftsmanship of the amendments that leaves many new terms undefined, as Garry Rayno reports in IndepthNH. Reps. Dave Luneau (D-Hopkinton) and Linda Tanner (D-Sunapee/Newport) also sit on the Education Oversight Committee.

After the Oversight Committee for Education evaluates the amendments, the amendments will go to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR) that reviews new rules and amendments proposed by all agencies. Sen. Tim Lang (R-Sanbornton) and Rep. Carol McGuire (R-Epsom) co-chair JLCAR. Sen. Becky Whitley (D-Hopkinton) and Rep. Jaci Grote (D-Rye) also sit on JLCAR.

Finally, if the dumbing down of Minimum Standards just happens to be challenged in court, we know the NH Supreme Court is a political body and its members are not immune to public pressure. If we’ve publicly challenged the new standards, the justices will likely know it.

If you are moved to write a letter to the editor about the dumbing down of Minimum Standards, remember an effective letter has three parts: the hook sentence, a nutgraf and a call to action. For more on writing Letters to the Editor, re-read Scooter’s Toolkit Post dated January 24, 2024 on this Substack.

Disclaimer: InDepthNH.org takes no position on political issues, but welcomes diverse ideas and opinions at nancywestnew@gmail.com

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