NH Education News Roundup, August 23, 2021

Members of the Joint Legislative Committee for Administrative Rules discuss the proposed interim rules for school vouchers on Thursday, August 19.
In this week’s NH Education News Roundup: JLCAR approves interim voucher rules; NHPR to host call-in show on school and COVID; Cardona rebuffs leaders for putting politics above school safety; and COVID-19 testing option for students gets mixed reception. 

Oversight committee conditionally approves interim voucher rules — The Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR), the state’s legislative oversight body, approved the interim rules for the statewide school voucher program along party lines on Thursday, August 19, under the condition that the NH Department of Education and State Board of Education begin the regular rulemaking process immediately. 

There were significant concerns with the revised interim rule proposal, which removed all oversight of the scholarship organization by the state and removed protections for students’ personal information, including health, financial, and school records data. There were also concerns around special education services and rights, as well as concerns that background checks are not required for education provider staff, including those who come in direct contact with children.

“The school voucher program is giving away public dollars with no oversight. We can’t violate the public’s trust and allow a program to be hastily implemented,” said Sen. Becky Whitley (D-Hopkinton), a JLCAR member. 

The statewide school voucher program, which was passed as part of the state budget in June 2021, allows for the use of taxpayer funds to pay for private and homeschooling expenses through “Education Freedom Accounts,” or vouchers. The school voucher program has been overwhelmingly opposed by the public in hearings, polling, and in the news due to concerns over the absence of accountability or transparency provisions, the cost to the state and to local school districts, and objections over using public tax dollars to fund private education. Lawmakers also had significant concerns over the technicalities of the bill. However, the bill was incorporated into the state budget, evading scrutiny from lawmakers and the public, and without work sessions to iron out the open questions. Several of those questions were raised by JLCAR staff attorneys and ultimately led to ambiguities that couldn’t be worked out in the rules. 

The State Board of Education is expected to adopt the interim rules at its next meeting on Friday, August 27. If the rules are adopted, the Children’s Scholarship Fund may begin enrolling students. Meanwhile, the Department and State Board must begin the regular rulemaking process immediately.  

NHPR to host a special call-in show on school and COVID — As students prepare to head back to school, New Hampshire Public Radio is broadcasting a call-in show on Tuesday, August 24, at 7 p.m., to answer questions and take comments about the COVID-19 pandemic and what it means for schools and families in the coming year. NHPR’s education reporter Sarah Gibson will host the show, along with pediatric infectious disease specialist and pediatric hospitalist Sharon Vuppula. Members of the public are invited to submit questions and comments prior to the show by voicemail at 603-513-7700 or email at voices@nhpr.org.

President Biden pushes back on state laws that interfere with guidance on safe school reopening — President Joe Biden released a memorandum to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week, directing him to “use all available tools to ensure that governors and other leaders are providing a safe return to in-person learning for the nation’s children.”  Due to vaccinations for school staff and older students, proven safety measures, and an influx of federal funds, all schools can and should open safely for full-time in-person instruction this fall, the memo explains. However, some state governments have adopted laws that prevent school districts from following safety protocols that align with recommendations from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Secretary of Education should ensure that “Governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our Nation’s children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations; and Governors and other officials are giving students the opportunity to participate and remain in safe full-time, in-person learning without compromising their health or the health of their families or communities,” the memo reads.

In response, Cardona penned a blog concurring with the President’s directive. “(Some) officials are putting politics ahead of students and blocking their school districts from adopting science-based strategies designed to protect students, aligned with CDC guidance,” it reads. “These states are needlessly placing students, families, and educators at risk.”

Pandemic could bring increase in special education students — Inquiries into and referrals for special education services have risen in some school districts, the Granite State News Collaborative reported last week. It’s too early to say, however, whether the uptick will result in more students receiving Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). Although schools can take advantage of federal relief funds to address special education needs, some educators are worried about finding qualified staff to fill needed roles.

COVID-19 testing option for NH students sparks debate — After the New Hampshire Department of Education partnered with a Boston-based testing company to provide pooled COVID-19 testing services for schools, districts around the state are deciding whether to utilize the service, according to the Union Leader. The Londonderry and Grantham School Districts have so far signed up for the testing service, and many other districts are in discussions about it. The PCR testing would be administered within cohorts of students, with most students performing their own nasal swabs. If a student tests positive, other students in the cohort would receive rapid testing. Students would have to have parental permission to participate.

After homeschool surge, school leaders expect most students to return — With the number of students homeschooling in New Hampshire doubling in the 2020-21 school year, the question for the coming school year is, how many will return to regular classrooms? In interviews with The Valley News, most school leaders said they anticipate a large percentage of homeschooled students to be back this year. Additionally, some expect an overall increase in enrollment due to an influx of families moving into the state.

Racial gap in college degrees increasing –– While the number of young people graduating from college has been climbing over the past decade, the gap between white and non-white college graduates has grown larger, according to an article published last week in the Hechinger Report. Between 2008 and today, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary degrees has increased from 38% to 45%. But the gap between white Americans with degrees and Black Americans with degrees has increased from 18 percentage points to 20 percentage points, while Latinx Americans with degrees remain 25 percentage points behind white Americans with degrees, a number that hasn’t changed since 2008. Along with raising questions of equity, experts say the gap represents a missed opportunity to fill jobs and raise revenue. States have begun addressing the gap in a variety of ways, including changing the way state aid is distributed and awarding an associate degree to students who have completed a designated number of credits towards a bachelor’s degree.

Education Up Close

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