Concord Monitor: Edelblut seeks to restructure education department

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The Concord Monitor reported on Senator John Reagan’s amendment to HB 356, which would give the Commissioner Frank Edelblut “broad discretion” over the Department of Education:

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut could be given broad discretion to restructure his department, a prospect that has sparked anew the anxieties raised by the commissioner’s critics when he nominated in January.

At Edelblut’s request, state Sen. John Reagan, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, has filed legislation that would consolidate all of the responsibilities housed within four existing divisions in the department and transfer them to the commissioner’s office.

The legislation – a proposed amendment to an unrelated education bill, House Bill 356 – would then allow the commissioner to create new department divisions, define their roles, and staff them from within the department as he sees fit.

“It’s a new commissioner and he’s a professional manager and this is what he wants to do,” said Reagan, a Deerfield Republican.

“I think there are silos over there, and people would not work outside of their silos,” he added.

The proposal has alarmed Edelblut’s critics, who argue this could give the new commissioner far too much latitude.

“It really does amount to an unprecedented, naked power grab by the commissioner,” said Andru Volinksy, a Democratic Executive Councilor. “Given his (confirmation hearing) testimony about being merely an implementer and not a maker of policy, this is a shocking change.”

They also worry that because of the mechanism by which this is being proposed – via an amendment to a bill that’s already had a hearing – that the public won’t get the opportunity to weigh in and vet the plan.

“This is a very complex piece of legislation that proposes to reorganize an important department that New Hampshire kids and families rely on to receive critical services. It deserves much greater scrutiny and public engagement before moving forward in the legislative process,” said Reaching Higher New Hampshire director of public engagement Dan Vallone.

With so much authority vested in local school boards and the State Board of Education, the state’s education department is relatively weak. Still, it acts as an intermediary between local districts and the federal government, calculates and distributes state aid, collects student and district data, and enforces state and federal rules.

The proposal doesn’t appear to give the department itself any new power, but it would give the commissioner a free hand to dictate who performs what functions within the department.

Volinksy added he worried the change could change the relationship between the State Board of Education – with whom Edelblut has had an increasingly contentious relationship – and the Commissioner’s office, which would by law have purview over basically all department functions.

“The board (would lose) its ability to oversee the commissioner and the department because the board will be completely dependent on the commissioner for information,” he said.

Edelblut, a businessman and Republican politician with no professional experience in education who homeschooled his children, was a controversial pick for the post. Conservatives and school choice advocates cheered his nomination while teacher’s unions and Democrats denounced him as somebody fundamentally hostile to traditional public schools.

A former one-term state representative, Edelblut ran to the right of now Gov. Chris Sununu in the Republican primary in last year’s gubernatorial race, in large part on a platform to reform education. He has railed against Common Core, pushed back against full-day kindergarten, and argued against certain protections for transgender students. After he was confirmed, it was also revealed he had previously donated to a legal battle against the department he now leads.

But Edelblut said in an interview that the proposal had nothing to do with increasing his authority, and said his critics were having knee-jerk reaction to what was essentially a housekeeping measure.

“I realize that because it involves Frank Edelblut, the commissioner of education, there must be some nefarious plot behind it but I don’t think that’s the case – in fact I know that’s not the case,” he said. “My goal here is fidelity to the law and effectiveness of the organization.”

He also disputed the idea that the proposal would give him more power.

“I don’t really understand that concern. Because obviously these people already report to me, right?” he said.

Edelblut said he’d asked for the legislative change because the current laws, which define which divisions perform what functions, were already out of sync with how the department was operating.

“What I discovered was that over the years, commissioners before me had transferred certain functions around within the department, and those transfers had not been reflected in the statute,” he said.

He said he didn’t yet have any specific plans about how to restructure, other than to rename the current divisions to make them easier to navigate for laypersons.

His proposal wasn’t crafted “unilaterally,” he said, and was put together in close consultation with department attorneys and Division of Education Improvement director Heather Gage.

The proposal would simply bring the changes that had already been made in compliance with the law, and give him the flexibility to make additional restructuring changes as needed, he argued.

The State Board of Education hasn’t been asked for input about the plan, though its chairman, Tom Raffio, wrote in an email that Edelblut had broached the topic in passing with him. The matter has been placed on the agenda for the board’s next meeting on May 11, he added.

State Board member Bill Duncan said he was surprised that Edelblut hadn’t discussed the plan with the state board yet or with superintendents, “who work so closely with the department day-to-day.”

He suggested the matter should have been brought to a study committee, and not amended onto a bill that had already been heard.

“Maybe there are solutions less radical than wiping the slate clean,” he said.

Edelblut said he was fine with the idea of using a bill that hadn’t yet had a hearing – and could then allow for public input on the proposal – in order to carry the amendment.

But he pushed back against the idea of waiting to restructure the department until after he’d fleshed out a full redesign and gotten the Legislature’s approval for it.

“Organizational design is not something that you can just do once a year,” he said.

The Senate Education Committee is scheduled to vote on the amendment Tuesday.

Read the full article here.