House considers changes to Manifest Educational Hardship provision

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The House Education Committee held a public hearing on January 30, 2018 on HB 1492, a bill that would change the law around Manifest Educational Hardship (MEH). Several people testified, including three school superintendents and representatives from the New Hampshire School Board Association, New Hampshire Association of School Principals, and School Choice for New Hampshire.

What is a Manifest Educational Hardship?

A parent or guardian may request to have their child moved to another school in extreme cases, known as a “manifest educational hardship.” A hardship may be considered if a parent or guardian can prove that a substantial portion of the student’s academic, physical, or personal needs cannot be met by the school.

Current state laws do not specify exactly what constitutes a manifest educational hardship; rather, they leave the specific policies, procedures, and definitions to the State Board of Education and local school boards to define. The rules relating to hardship lapsed in 2016, and the Department of Education requested that the State Board of Education wait to approve new rules until HB 1492 moves through the legislature.

The process begins when a parent or guardian files a request for a school reassignment with their superintendent. If the superintendent approves the request, it then goes before the local school board. The parent must make the request at a scheduled school board meeting and demonstrate that the student’s needs are not being met at their current school. The board then makes the decision of whether or not to grant the reassignment. Parents may appeal to the State Board of Education if they disagree with the board’s decision.

If the hardship is approved by the local school board, sending and receiving districts must then agree on the tuition. The sending district is responsible for covering the full tuition. Families, under current statute, are responsible for transportation, unless the district agrees to another arrangement.

Defining what constitutes a hardship under current law is difficult, according to Diane Fenton, an attorney with the Department of Education.

“There is a recognition that these cases are so fact-dependent and they’re all so different, that it was difficult to define manifest educational hardship. And to be frank, I don’t know if it can be defined. Parents have a right to say it might not fall within the definition, but it does fall in under a manifest educational hardship,” she told the committee.

Changes in HB 1492

Representative Rick Ladd (Haverhill) introduced the bill at the hearing, telling the committee that the primary purpose of the bill is to “shift the burden of proof [of hardship] from parents to the school board.”

“Now the board has the burden of proof,” Representative Ladd said. “What I’m trying to do is not have the parent come in and be put in the position that they have to prove something. Now the school board acts on the recommendation.”

The bill requires the board to recommend a course of action for every request, which could include a transfer to another classroom or school, or another solution that provides relief to the student.

Representative Ladd said that a solution could be more support in mental health, special services, or another program.

The committee had questions around hardship and what could qualify.

“If a student just doesn’t like a teacher, does that fall in?,” asked Representative Terry Wolf (Bedford).

“It’s my understanding that that’s not enough. But it would be up to the school board working with the superintendent and principals to come up with a plan,” Representative Ladd said.

Representative Mel Myler (Contoocook) asked why the bill was being presented if there is already an appeals process in place.

“There are schools which are not meeting academic needs of a particular student. [Some schools] don’t offer AP courses. Would that be a reason for reassignment? I think so. The equity gap is getting greater, and in order to provide what a child needs, we need to have options for placement in another school,” replied Representative Ladd.

But Representative James Grenier (Lempster) pushed back: “No school is required to provide anything more than an adequate education. An AP class is not part of an adequate education. Can you explain to me why it would be a manifest hardship if a child can’t get something beyond that adequate education?”

“If we are to presume more than adequacy, then had we better not increase that $3,600 that we provide for an adequate education? And how can we not say, now we need $12,000, $14,000, from the state?”

The current process and impacts on districts

Barrett Christina of the New Hampshire School Boards Association told the committee that most hardship cases get resolved under current law.

“The Department of Education hears maybe three cases of manifest educational hardship appeals every year. I think that’s indicative that in most cases, the situation gets resolved at the local level under current Department rules with collaboration between school boards, students, parents, and principals.”

“I think that the changes that are presented are overly broad and I don’t think they are necessary,” Christina continued. “Representative Ladd talked about shifting the burden… I’m not aware of any other process in American law where the person making the claim doesn’t have any kind of initial burden that they need to prove. If parents are going to claim that there is a hardship, I think it is reasonable that they present evidence to do so.”

Monadnock Superintendent Lisa Witte agreed. “The system works really well the way it is now. We get valuable feedback from families to make better decisions for everyone in our district.”

Superintendent Dean Cascadden testified, telling the committee about the importance of the community in how their school performs.

“I get a lot of calls from people saying that they’re not happy in their school, and how can I bring my kids into the Bow school system? I say, move to Dunbarton or Bow. Let’s not forget that communities build school systems based on basis of taxes. Certain communities go to their annual meetings and support their schools, and other places don’t.”

Potential problems with the bill’s language

According to Fenton, the bill blends manifest educational hardship and “best interest” when considering a reassignment.

“They are separate and distinct from each other. By blending the two, it does confuse some of the standards that are applicable,” she said.

In a reassignment for a student’s best interest, superintendents reassign students. However, in the case of a hardship, the school board is tasked with coming up with a solution.

Superintendent Dean Cascadden said that administrators frequently work with students and parents in reassignments for a student’s best interest, including a classroom reassignment, within the current rules.

The Appeals Process

Under a manifest educational hardship, parents have the right to appeal to the State Board of Education. But, according to Cascadden, that process has changed:

“The appeals process is difficult now. Before the State Board was politicized and done by political appointment, they would review the case and review procedure and due process. They would review that you, as the local board, gave a good decision based on the evidence presented. But they respected your decision as a local board.”

“Recently, that hasn’t been the case. Boards have come in and given a really good case, but the State Board says, for political reasons, we don’t agree, we are going to force you as the local board to review the case over and over. What authority does the State Board have in telling local board that you need to spend local dollars in a different way?,” he asked.

Next Steps

The House Education Committee has not yet scheduled an executive session for the bill. Keep up with changes to this and other bills by following us on Facebook and Twitter and signing up for our Education Bills Tracker!

Watch the video of the hearing here: