State Board of Education: Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules’ objections to Learn Everywhere based on “incorrect understanding” of laws & rules

The State Board of Education has approved its response to a legislative oversight committee’s objections to the Learn Everywhere rule proposal at its meeting on August 9, 2019. Learn Everywhere, proposed by Education Commissioner Edelblut in December 2018, would mandate that public high schools and charter schools accept credit from approved private, for-profit and nonprofit companies. 

The Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR) cited eight violations where the proposed Learn Everywhere rules may violate state laws and rules. Commissioner Edelblut put forward the proposed response to JLCAR, which the State Board approved by a 4-2 vote. Read more about JLCAR’s objections here

The paramount concern for JLCAR was that Learn Everywhere removes the power of the local school district. Under current laws and rules, the local school district is responsible for creating and adopting its own competencies and curriculum. But, Learn Everywhere allows the State Board to approve curriculum that aligns to State Competencies and mandates that schools across the state award credit for them.

In the Commissioner’s response, he made several minor changes. However, he pushed back on JLCAR’s assertion that Learn Everywhere supersedes local control, writing that the objection was based on an “incorrect understanding” of the current laws and rules. 

Competencies: State or Local?

The “incorrect understanding” lies in the definitions of “competencies” and “curriculum,” and how students actually earn credit, Commissioner Edelblut wrote. 

New Hampshire’s competency-based education system means that students progress through high school by demonstrating mastery of graduation competencies, not through sitting in a classroom for a certain number of days and working through curriculum. Currently, state statute gives local school boards the sole authority to set the graduation competencies that lead to high school graduation. And therefore, graduation competencies vary between districts. 

Attempting to address this objection, the Commissioner changed the rules to align Learn Everywhere programs to “State Competencies,” which would be “equivalent” to the graduation competencies that are set by local school boards. 

“…Students are eligible to receive high school credit under [Learn Everywhere] for demonstration of mastery of State Competencies in a Required Subject included in the minimum standards (ED 306.27 (t)) and schools retain their ability to preserve the individuality of their local high school diploma by determining required graduation competencies, which local graduation requirements may go beyond the State minimum requirements for graduation,” wrote Commissioner Edelblut. 

This system would create two different sets of competencies: graduation competencies that are set by local school boards, and state competencies that would presumably be set by the State Board of Education.

Learn Everywhere programs would align to these State Competencies, while all other programs–including Extended Learning Opportunities–would align to the local district’s graduation competencies. However, local districts would be mandated to grant credit based on programs designed around State Competencies, even if the local competencies are more rigorous. 

Board member Helen Honorow noted how granting credit has always been the responsibility of local districts.

“The response seems to suggest that granting credit is something that this Department can do, has done, always has done. I don’t agree with that. The granting of credit has always come from the district. These proposed rules completely turn that around, and provide the granting of credit comes from this Board,” said Ms. Honorow. 

Department of Education Attorney Richard Sala responded, saying: “I think that this is the fundamental issue that has been taken up… what is the statute [in SB 435] authorizing the Board to do? The Department’s position is that in order for [Learn Everywhere] credits to lead to graduation, they have to be applied somewhere.”

Mr. Sala was referencing the law proposed by Commissioner Edelblut that was passed in 2018, which gave the State Board authority to adopt rules for approving “alternative programs for granting credit leading to graduation.” 

But according to lawmakers who voted on the bill last year, many of them felt misled by the Commissioner’s explanation of the bill. They’ve testified that they thought the bill meant that the Department would be supporting the existing Extended Learning Opportunities that are offered in most schools across the state, not removing local control. Both chambers passed a bill in 2019 that would have reversed this law, but Governor Sununu vetoed it in July. 

Learn Everywhere & Math Learning Communities

Commissioner Edelblut claimed in his letter that the law does not give school districts total control over determining graduation requirements, and points to Math Learning Communities (MLCs) as an example of how the state can mandate a school to grant credit. MLCs include two math courses offered at a student’s high school and are aligned with college-level math competencies.  

However, as Board member Helen Honorow pointed out, MLCs are a partnership between high schools and the Community College System of New Hampshire (CCSNH). The Department of Education encourages the use of the program, but the credit is ultimately awarded by the school district:

“The program was developed by the Community College System, to my understanding, in conjunction with [public school] educators, and the statute talks about encouraging the use of this program and encouraging the development of courses… very specifically, in getting the math skills that they were missing,” said Ms. Honorow. 

In Math Learning Communities, “there is an MOU between the school district that adopts this program, so that they are involved with it at all times, and that the granting of the credit is coming from the school district as a result of that MOU that they enter into,” she continued. 

The Math Learning Communities Project is a partnership between New Hampshire high schools, the state’s Community College System and University System. High school seniors can take two remedial math courses through Running Start, where students take high school courses in their school while also earning college credit. Running Start courses are taught by high school teachers that are also approved by CCSNH. 

Learn Everywhere programs would not have to work with local school districts in any way. Instead, they would apply directly to the State Board of Education, and the State Board would determine whether or not the programs could offer high school credit. 

Board Support for Learn Everywhere

Board member Ann Lane supported the Department’s response, and the Learn Everywhere program more broadly, as a way to expand opportunities for students. Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs), she argued, are only available to students that live in districts that are “affluent enough,” but Learn Everywhere courses would be available to all students because they would be state-level programs.  

“Nashua is fortunate to have an ELO Coordinator. Bedford–they have more money than most districts–they have an ELO Coordinator. Oyster River [Cooperative School District] has an ELO Coordinator. So it’s just those communities that are affluent enough, with a big enough tax base to collect lots of taxes, that have ELO Coordinators. That doesn’t seem fair or just to me,” she said. 

“For students who live in districts that don’t have ELO coordinators, they don’t even have that opportunity,” Ms. Lane continued. 

But according to the NH ELO Network, only five out of 89 school districts do not have a designated staff member with the title, “ELO Coordinator.” These districts include Bedford and Windham, traditionally thought of as “affluent” districts. 

Districts like Bedford and Windham may not have designated ELO Coordinators, but students have access to Extended Learning Opportunities in almost every school. Most schools, except for one, had ELOs as an option in their 2019-2020 student handbook. They encouraged students to pursue opportunities and work with administrators to develop ELOs that match their interests and individual school requirements. 

Changes to rules regarding student safety & special education

The Commissioner included three changes to the Learn Everywhere rules, including:

  • A process for how a school should handle a student who accumulates more credits in a specific area than what is required; 
  • A policy that allows complaints to be submitted to the Department of Education; and, 
  • Asserting that a student’s IEP team would determine whether or not a student with an IEP would receive credit for participating in a Learn Everywhere program. 

JLCAR will determine whether these changes resolve the potential violations of the law at an upcoming meeting. 

In the meantime, Commissioner Edelblut will be a guest on NHPR’s The Exchange to talk about Learn Everywhere. Read more here

Read more about Learn Everywhere: