State Board narrowly approves Learn Everywhere, Chair asserting that local control “is a myth”

drew cline sboe manifest ed hardship
Chairman Drew Cline at a State Board of Education meeting in 2018.

On Thursday, June 13, the State Board of Education (SBOE) passed the Learn Everywhere rules on a 4-3 vote. Under the proposal, private for-profit and nonprofit organizations would be able to offer public school courses. Public school districts and charter schools would be mandated to accept up to 1/3 of a student’s total required graduation credits through Learn Everywhere programs, which is more than a full year’s worth of high school courses.

The Board voted to approve the rules, despite “the overwhelming amount of commentary” that  “was against Learn Everywhere,” as explained by Board member Helen Honorow.

“We received a ton of feedback… I didn’t think email could crash from being full, but there it was,” commented Board member Phil Nazzarro.

Here are the highlights of the SBOE discussion:

  • Many people, including parents and taxpayers, are concerned about how the proposed rules would remove local control, to which Board Chair Drew Cline responded that “local control is a myth,” and that the state forcing districts to “do things is nothing new.”
  • The process has been rushed, despite lawmakers working on a bill (SB 140) that would nullify the program, according to Board member Honorow.
  • Members of the Board and public have concerns with the transparency of the process, as the changes cited were made in response to an invitation-only, private stakeholder group, and that all feedback was not incorporated.
  • Questions remain unanswered: how certified educators would be involved in the program approval process; whom would address student concerns and issues; and, how colleges would view school profiles that include Learn Everywhere credits.

Local control “is a myth

Parents, educators, taxpayers, Board members, and others have raised concerns that by requiring public schools and charter schools to accept at least one third of a student’s total high school credits granted from a Learn Everywhere provider, it infringes upon local control.

New Hampshire has a strong tradition of local control when it comes to education. Local school boards are responsible for adopting academic standards and learning benchmarks, setting policies within the school, establishing curriculum, choosing assessment and accountability measures (aside from the federally mandated statewide assessment), managing the school district’s budget, hiring and firing staff, and more.

According to Board member Cindy Chagnon, requiring districts to accept one-third of a student’s total credits from any Learn Everywhere provider–even for core classes like math, science, and history–is a “sea change” in a state that prides itself on local control:

“To challenge this local control is a sea change to me. It’s not a slight tweak, it’s a sea change in the way the state and the local people deal with each other. To say [one-third] is a slap in the face, it’s like saying we don’t trust you to accept these… so we are going to force you to accept them. It’s a relationship that I don’t want to see develop.

“Let’s not force something that so many people in NH are opposed to, and that really goes against what our state is all about.”

Board Chair Drew Cline responded, calling local control in New Hampshire’s schools “a myth”:

“To be perfectly candid, it’s a myth that we have local control over public education in New Hampshire. It is a myth. The state created school districts… the State Board of Education, the Commissioner of Education, the Department of Education to oversee the school districts. The school districts have a certain amount of limited autonomy because the state grants them…

“What we have in New Hampshire is a hybrid system, where there is some state control and there is some oversight; the state allows local districts–we are not a home-rule state–to have a certain, limited area of autonomy. That’s the law. That’s the way it’s been in New Hampshire for well over a century.

“I just want to make clear that requiring a district–saying they ‘shall’ do things–is nothing new. It’s not a sea change. It’s standard; it’s what we do. We have respectfully, and I think appropriately, tried to not overdo that.”

Questions about process

The revised rules were released on Monday, June 10, 2019– three days before the Board was set to vote on them. Board member Helen Honorow told the group that she was concerned at the lack of transparency.

“We didn’t get a lot of time to look at this. There were lots of changes,” she said.

Honorow also had questions about the stakeholder group, which the Commissioner and Board Chair convened in March as an invitation-only group to provide direct, specific feedback. The meetings were not made public, nor did the Department of Education share details about the composition of the group, the feedback that was given when it convened, or the changes that were made as a result of it.

“I don’t feel like we changed these rules. I asked to come to the stakeholder meeting that only happened after the rules were already out, and was told I couldn’t, very specifically, because it would be a board meeting or there would be too many of us there.” [Editor’s note: If at least half of SBOE members are at a meeting, it is considered an official Board meeting. Board meetings are legally open to the public and can be recorded, unless they vote to enter a nonpublic session.]

“At no point did I ever feel like I had a voice in this,” Honorow continued.

Superintendent Lisa Witte shared Honorow’s concerns about the stakeholder group and revision process in a letter to the Board:

“While not explicitly stated, it was certainly heavily implied that the revisions made to Learn Everywhere resolved the concerns of the stakeholder group and that the stakeholder group endorsed the most recent version of Learn Everywhere as a result. Yet, there was no information provided about the composition of the stakeholder group and the meetings that occurred – let alone any evidence that the stakeholder group was in support of the rules as revised.”

Honorow also questioned why the State Board is considering the rules, despite lawmakers’ efforts to reverse the law that paved the way for Learn Everywhere.

At their May meeting, she noted that the State board waited to consider new rules until the legislature was finished with changes to the laws around manifest education hardship. But with Learn Everywhere, SBOE and Department leadership have taken the opposite approach: the State Board and Commissioner have moved forward, despite a bill passed in both chambers that would nullify the program:  

“There’s no disagreement in our legislature, that our [Learn Everywhere] regulations as currently drafted, are not what both chambers feel should happen. But we’re going to try to impose this? I don’t even know why this is before us today,” Honorow said.

SB 140, which would reaffirm local districts’ traditional role in granting academic credits and would remove the State Board’s authority to do so under the proposed Learn Everywhere rules, passed both the House and Senate and is waiting for action by Governor Sununu.

Open Questions and Concerns

Even though the Board voted to approve the rules, some members’ questions and concerns remain unanswered.

Supporters of the program say that programs are vetted by a committee of educators and Department of Education staff members to ensure that they are appropriate for students.

The Commissioner or a designee will select one ELO network member and one, but not more than two, NH licensed educators for the approval committee. But the rules state that their availability “shall not interfere” with the program application review.

This is a problem, said Board member Helen Honorow.

“If they can’t make the meeting, it doesn’t say they have to be there. It’s not a requirement,” she told the Board.

There are two other members that are required to be on the approval board. Both are representatives from within the Department of Education.

Board member Cindy Chagnon questioned how colleges would view student transcripts and school profiles when they found out that schools must accept at least one-third, and up to 100% with superintendent approval, of credits obtained at for-profit and nonprofit organizations without any input from the district:

“Each school presents to these colleges a school profile, very carefully worked out, about their school. And it says what you can expect of a graduate of Concord High School, that this is what [students] do. This flies in the face of that. How will school profiles mean anything anymore to colleges? Because a third or more could come from somewhere else,” she said.

Educators have written about the myriad of ELOs offered to students, and have referenced the Department’s own survey that showed that almost 7,000 students have participated in at least one ELO between September 2018 and March 2019.

BAE Systems, FIRST Robotics, and a number of businesses and organizations across the state are offering ELOs through local school districts. ELO coordinators and school staff work with businesses and organizations to ensure that students’ needs are being met, make sure that the experiences are rigorous enough to merit credit, and work to resolve any issues that may arise between the student and the ELO partner.

That is missing in the Learn Everywhere program, said Honorow, since students would be accumulating them directly from the provider:

“I don’t think that these regulations provide a way to make sure that issues, should there be any in a particular Learn Everywhere [course], can be resolved. There’s no educator or anyone from the district to make sure who has paid for something like this, has gotten what they’re supposed to be getting,” she said.

Despite the open questions, the Board narrowly approved the rules in a 4-3 vote. Next, the rules head to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR).

Next steps

Next, the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR) must review the rules to ensure that they are within the scope of the department. JLCAR will accept public comment at their meeting on Thursday, July 18, 2019,  according to the New Hampshire Department of Education.

The most recent draft of the rules is available here, and is included in the SBOE’s public meeting materials.

Read more about the program: