NH Education Roundup, Sept. 11, 2020

In this issue of Reaching Higher NH’s Education News Brief: The Commission to Study School Funding gets a first look at a draft research report on school funding; the State Board of Education approves a major expansion for the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS), while Gov. Sununu directs $7 million in CARES funds to the school; and as schools reopen in various formats around the state, the Commissioner provides a progress report on school reopening plans.

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School Funding Commission Reviews AIR Draft Report — The Commission to Study School Funding got its first look at the full school funding draft report prepared by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) at its meeting on Thursday, Sept. 10. Among its key findings, the report says “the state could more equitably generate revenue for education through a statewide property tax that collects revenue centrally and distributes the revenue according to the formula.” AIR’s cost modeling “indicates that districts with higher needs … and small districts require more spending per student to achieve a common desired level of outcomes.” 

The report does not make policy recommendations, but its findings will be used to inform the Commission’s recommendations to the legislature, along with expert testimony and public input. 

Commission work groups meet again on Monday, Sept. 14, and a public comment period is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 4 p.m. 

State Board of Education Approves VLACS Expansion — On Thursday, Sept. 10, the State Board of Education approved an amendment request by the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School (VLACS) to increase its K-12 enrollment capacity by 2,295 students to address a surge in demand for online classes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Kossakoski, founder and CEO of VLACS, told the Board that during one week in August, they received 7,000 enrollment requests. Historically, even during the highest enrollment periods, the school never received more than 1,600 requests, Kossakoski explained. There are now about 2,500 students on a waitlist. 

The expansion more than doubles the enrollment capacity for the school, which received approval from the board in July to add K-3 classes for the first time in the 2020-21 school year.  The approved increase is for “full-time equivalent” students; part-time students, which represent the majority of VLACS students, are aggregated into that number. Kossakoski stated that the school has hired 73 adjunct instructors since July 1, and is in the process of hiring an additional 30 instructors.

School districts can offer families the option to utilize VLACS with no penalty to the adequacy funding they receive from the state, according to reopening guidance issued by Governor Sununu in July. In the Board meeting on September 10, Commissioner Edelblut confirmed that districts will not lose adequacy funding if they are using VLACS as their remote option; Kossakoski clarified that if a student withdraws from their district school and enrolls in VLACS as a full-time enrolled student, “the funding then gets separated.” 

Also on Thursday, Gov. Sununu announced that the state is directing $7 million in CARES Act funds to VLACS to support its expansion. The funds will mostly help pay for 30 additional teachers. “Obviously there’s a lot of demands for families to provide that alternate path of education, and I’ve always seen one of our roles here as just opening up those doors of opportunity,” Sununu said during his latest coronavirus briefing. 

Education Commissioner Discusses School Reopening Progress — Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut provided an update on school reopening progress to the State Board of Education at its Sept. 10 meeting: 

• About 36% of districts have reopened in person; 42% are utilizing some type of hybrid model; and 17% are fully remote. 

• Schools have begun to access Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Funds to address COVID-19-related spending last spring.

• The state received a new waiver for school lunch eligibility last week, allowing schools to continue offering meals to all students regardless of income eligibility at least through December. Last spring, the waiver played a key role in allowing districts to continue feeding students during school closures. 

• In assessing school reopening plans, the Department of Education finds that schools are doing well in following Department of Health and Safety guidelines for facilities. Some schools are still working on creating effective communications plans and ensuring that their instructional models are dynamic enough to meet all student needs. 

• Schools will utilize a five-step plan that includes contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine, in the event that any student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. The plan can be viewed here

State Unveils COVID-19 Tracking Tool for Schools — A COVID-19 dashboard created by the NH Department of Health and Human Services went live last week. It tracks the number of active cases, recovered cases and clusters at every school and college in the state, as well as documenting data trends and snapshots of various metrics by county and municipality. 

School Begins For Students Across the State — The 2020-21 school year officially began in many districts around the state this week, with schools utilizing a variety of models, from fully remote to fully in person. Educators, students and families confronted a variety of challenges, including overcoming technical difficulties and navigating an unfamiliar new school culture.  

DeVos to States: Don’t Expect Waivers From Annual Tests — In a letter to state school officers last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that schools should plan to administer annual summative assessments during the 2020-21 school year. The standardized tests in English/language arts, math, and science are “among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing at school,” she said. Last spring, DeVos granted states waivers from having to administer certain required annual exams. The New Hampshire Department of Education recently created an assessment guidance document for schools, available here

What We’re Reading: 

A program offering promise to students in Pittsfield ends, underscoring scant education funding in small towns

Concord Monitor, Ray Duckler, September 2, 2020

Public Meetings Went Virtual Due To The Pandemic. Should They Stay That Way? 

Sentinel Source, Meg McIntyre, August 29, 2020

As School Year Starts, Schools Face New and Lingering Challenges

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Nicholas Johnson, August 24, 2020

What a Trump Directive on ‘Anti-American Propaganda’ Means for the Ed. Dept.

Education Week, Evie Blad, September 10, 2020

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