Weekly Legislative Update: State Board votes to limit remote learning, lawmakers hear testimony on school funding and divisive concepts ban

It was a busy week in Concord last week: concurrent House and Senate public hearings with executive sessions mixed in, and a State Board of Education meeting on Thursday. House and Senate Education Committees held public hearings on a number of topics, including school funding, divisive concepts, and higher education, while the State Board advanced rules that would limit schools’ ability to pivot to remote learning. This week is even busier: The House will be in session Tuesday through Friday, and will hold public hearings on a number of bills regarding content bans, curriculum transparency, remote learning, and school calendars. 

New Hampshire is unique in that every bill that is proposed is required to have a public hearing, so this time of year, lawmakers are in session multiple times per week. This also means that there are hundreds of bills to keep track of -- but don’t worry, that’s our job. In our weekly legislative updates, we’ll provide an overview of the week’s education-related policy landscape and a full schedule of what’s happening this week. Check them all out at reachinghighernh.org/weeklyupdates and sign up for our monthly newsletter. 

State Board votes to limit remote learning

The New Hampshire State Board of Education voted to send new remote learning rules to the state’s legislative oversight committee on Thursday. 

Under the proposed distance learning rules, remote learning days would only count towards the 180-day requirement during inclement weather or if a parent or guardian specifically requests them. Remote learning days due to COVID outbreaks, staffing shortages, or other factors would have to be made up at the end of the year. 

The vote comes on the heels of one of the state’s largest school districts’ closures due to COVID-related staffing shortages: Nashua had to close on Monday and Tuesday of last week. Other districts have had to temporarily move to remote learning status due to outbreaks and clusters, particularly after school breaks. 

The proposed rules will now head to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (JLCAR), a 10-member oversight body that considers the legality of the rules. Until then, the current distance learning rules remain in effect.

Higher education: Tuition, mergers, and extending degrees 

The House Education Committee kicked off its 2022 work with a series of bills on higher education. The committee, after its public hearing, unanimously voted to recommend passing HB 1218, which would merge Granite State College into the University of New Hampshire, as well as HB 1575, which would waive college and university tuition for children of New Hampshire’s disabled veterans.

Committee members agreed to create a working sub-committee for HB 1530, which would allow the Community College System of New Hampshire to offer bachelor’s degrees. The working sub-committee will explore the proposal more deeply and bring ideas and recommendations back to the full Committee. 

The prime sponsor of HB 1530, Representative Oliver Ford (R-Chester), said that the intention of the bill is to generate conversation about student access to post-secondary programming.  According to a study published in 2020, 23 states allow community colleges to offer such programs, and research suggests that they serve a more diverse student population, including more adult learners and rural residents. However, national studies have indicated concerns that the programs may compete with their state’s four-year institutions for students. 

Two proposals to address the school funding crisis

There are two main school funding bills so far this session: HB 1680, which would reshape the state’s school funding system through the “Foundation Opportunity Program,” and SB 420, which would provide about $25 million in “extraordinary need grants” for towns with the low- and moderate- property tax bases. Both had public hearings last week. 

HB 1680 would significantly increase state funding for public schools: the “base” funding would increase from $3,786 to $6,501 per student, and targeted aid for certain students would also increase. The proposal would also boost school accountability for student performance by requiring schools that don’t meet benchmarks to implement “turnaround plans” and report on progress for closing opportunity gaps that exist for students. 

The House Education Committee is sending the bill to a subcommittee work session, which will meet for the first time on January 24 at 10 a.m.

Under SB 420, about half of the state’s towns would receive a total of $14.7 million in 2022 and $9.6 million in 2023, according to NH Department of Education estimates. The grants are allocated on a sliding scale: towns with the lowest property tax bases would receive $650 per student who qualifies for school meal programs, and those with moderate tax bases would receive a portion of the grant based on a sliding scale. According to the estimates, Manchester would receive $3.9 million in 2022, Claremont would receive $489,872, and Newport would receive $248,656. Towns that wouldn’t receive the grant: Merrimack, Pelham, Londonderry, Exeter, and Stoddard. 

The Senate Education Committee did not vote on a recommendation for SB 420. 

Debate around teachings of “divisive concepts”

Both the House and Senate had hearings on bills related to the state’s “divisive concepts” law: HB 1313, which extends the provision to public colleges and universities, and SB 304, which repeals and replaces it. 

Quick refresher: The “divisive concepts” legislation that was passed as part of last year’s budget states that K-12 public schools and public workplaces can’t teach or offer training on certain topics pertaining to race and gender; specifically, that one race or gender is inherently superior to another, which is often thought of as “systemic racism and sexism,” or “unconscious bias.” 

The result in the classroom, according to educators and school leaders, has been confusion around what the law actually means and a chilling of speech and teaching about race, history, literature, and other topics. But supporters have said that the law intends to protect students and employees from being told that they’re inherently racist or sexist.

HB 1313 would extend the “divisive concepts” law to public colleges and universities. 

“Any instructor aligning and communicating one’s own vision of race relations with a national narrative that uses diversity and inclusion as its platform is unacceptable,” said House Education Chairman Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill), who sponsored the bill, at the public hearing on Tuesday.

But others opposed the proposal, highlighting the bill’s vague language at the hearing. 

“The general intent to include public post-secondary education under (the previous statute) would seem to raise contradictions with widely accepted tenets of academic freedom of college and university faculty… Regardless of which way one leans on the concept, the ambiguities themselves are going to be very problematic,” said Shannon Reid, Director of Government Affairs for the Community College System of New Hampshire. 

The ACLU also raised concerns about extending the provision to higher education, which has extensive protections around academic freedom.

The House Education Committee did not vote on a recommendation for HB 1313. 

SB 304 would repeal the divisive concepts law and replace it with language that would clarify that neither schools nor workplaces would be barred from teaching about, or offering trainings on, implicit bias or systemic racism, sexism, and other topics. 

“The [existing] anti-disrcimination statutes… are ambiguous and confusing, as if by design,” said bill sponsor Senator Jay Kahn (D-Keene) during the public hearing. 

Noting a number of issues systemic to our society, Senator Kahn said, “how do we address these very real issues without having the necessary conversations about why these discrepancies exist?”

“I see it as, I can teach anything about anything that ever happened in history, anything that happened in culture, I just can’t advocate, which I see over and over, the systemic racism, that because you’re white, you have inherent bias,” said Senator Bill Gannon (R-Sandown). “If I really thought that this was limiting the ability to teach, I wouldn’t be advocating for last year’s bill.”

Talking about the backlash of the divisive concepts legislation, Representative Maria Perez (D-Milford) spoke about threats to teachers. “I see parents on social media, saying ‘if the teacher is teaching my kids something that I don’t feel comfortable with, I’m going to sue the teacher and make sure that teacher loses their license,’ and that’s something I don’t want to see,” she said. 

Other groups that include educators and school leaders echoed the concerns of similar threats, particularly in light of the “teacher bounty” that was announced in the fall by the New Hampshire chapter of the national group Moms for Liberty.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote on a recommendation for SB 304.

This week in the Legislature

This week, the House will hold public hearings on four days, while the Senate will hold public hearings on Tuesday. All public hearings will be livestreamed by the chambers on their YouTube channels, but there is no opportunity for remote testimony. Those interested in submitting comments without attending the public hearing can do so either by submitting written testimony to the committee, or registering your support or opposition for the legislation using the “remote sign-in” option (here for House, and here for Senate). 

Of note: 

TUESDAY: The House will hold a public hearing on HB 1564, which would require school districts to offer breakfast if they do not already do so. The Senate will hold public hearings on SB 235, which would give school boards the authority to determine whether they pivot to remote learning instead of the state; and SB 236, which would create a committee to study New Hampshire’s teacher workforce.  

WEDNESDAY: The House will hold public hearings on HB 1632, which would specify the content and model curriculum materials for teaching about the civil rights movement; HB 1190, which would prevent the state from adopting rules that comply with federal mandates that are not fully funded with state or federal dollars; and HB 1329, which would codify the credit requirements of the Learn Everywhereprogram. 

THURSDAY: The House will hold a number of public hearings on curriculum and transparency bills. They’ll also hold a public hearing on HB 1255, the “teacher loyalty” bill, which would prevent teachers from teaching a “negative account” of US history or its foundings. 

FRIDAY: The House Education Committee will hold public hearings on a number of school voucher bills, including HB 1355 and HB 1114, which aim to increase accountability and transparency in the voucher program. They’ll also hold a hearing on HB 1661, which would require districts to form regional career and technical education (CTE) agreements, at 1:00 p.m.  The bill is a result of several months of work by a subcommittee, and aims to clarify the frequency by which regional agreements are approved, the coordination of daily schedules and yearly calendars between sending high schools and regional CTE Centers, and credits and programming requirements.  

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:00 a.m. HB 1164 revising the agriculture in the classroom committee. 
  • 9:30 a.m. HB 1058 relative to the time allowed for public school students to eat lunch. 
  • 10:00 a.m. HB 1261 prohibiting the use of Native American mascots in public schools, colleges, and universities. 
  • 10:30 a.m. HB 1564-FN-LOCAL requiring school districts to provide breakfast for students. 
  • 11:15 a.m. HB 1627-FN-A establishing an education freedom account program administrator in the Department of Education and making an appropriation therefor. 
  • 1:00 p.m. HB 1630-FN requiring high school students to complete a half-year required course in the introduction to philosophy. 
  • 1:45 p.m. HB 1263 relative to physical education in schools. 
  • 2:30 p.m. HB 1367 relative to civics instruction in schools. 
  • 3:00 p.m. HB 1533 relative to health education curriculum in schools. 
  • 3:45 p.m. HB 1144 requiring public schools to teach labor history.

Senate Education, Legislative Office Building Room 101

  • 9:00 a.m. SB 235 relative to the authority to offer multiple education instruction options. 
  • 9:15 a.m. SB 236 establishing a committee to study New Hampshire teacher shortages and recruitment incentives. 
  • 9:30 a.m. SB 350 relative to rulemaking by the State Board of Education on educational personnel applicant checks and licensing standards. 
  • 9:45 a.m. SB 351 relative to annual performance and financial reporting by private and religious schools that receive public funds.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:00 a.m. HB 1632-FN relative to civil rights education in public elementary and secondary schools. 
  • 9:45 a.m. HB 1190 relative to rulemaking by the State Board of Education for compliance with federal provisions. 
  • 10:30 a.m. HB 1311 prohibiting persons charged with or convicted of certain assault or controlled drug possession violations from employment in a public school. 
  • 11:00 a.m. HB 1234 relative to criminal background checks for an applicant for a teaching credential. 
  • 11:30 a.m. HB 1372 relative to requirements for teacher certification. 
  • 1:00 p.m. HB 1202 relative to transportation of pupils to school activities by a contract carrier. 
  • 1:30 p.m. HB 1236 relative to the legislative oversight committee for the education improvement and assessment program. 
  • 2:00 p.m. HB 1639 relative to the youth risk behavior survey in schools. 
  • 3:00 p.m. HB 1329 relative to alternative programs for credit leading to high school graduation.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:00 a.m. HB 1015 relative to school district policies regarding objectionable material. 
  • 10:00 a.m. HB 1051 relative to State Board of Education rules for credit for alternative, extended learning, and work-based programs. 
  • 10:45 a.m. HB 1125 relative to school emergency plans. 
  • 11:15 a.m. HB 1255 relative to teachers’ loyalty. 
  • 1:00 p.m. HB 1336 relative to rulemaking by the State Board of Education concerning violations of the professional code of ethics and the professional code of conduct. 
  • 1:45 p.m. HB 1113 prohibiting the Department of Education and the State Board of Education from directing or limiting school instructional options, such as remote learning. 
  • 2:30 p.m. HB 1434-FN relative to the availability of school curriculum materials. 
  • 3:00 p.m. HB 1243 relative to alternative transportation of students for public schools.

Friday, January 21, 2022

House Education, Legislative Office Building Room 205-207

  • 9:00 a.m. HB 1513-FN relative to the definition of a child with a disability for purposes of special education. 
  • 10:00 a.m. HB 1421-FN relative to lead in school drinking water. 
  • 10:45 a.m. HB 1196 relative to school financial reports of public academies. 
  • 11:15 a.m. HB 1355 requiring the scholarship organization to refer suspected cases of misuse of funds or fraud in the education freedom account program to the Attorney General. 
  • 1:00 p.m. HB 1661-FN-LOCAL relative to regional career technical education agreements. 
  • 2:00 p.m. HB 1283 relative to liability as taxable income of education freedom account payments. 
  • 2:45 p.m. HB 1516 relative to the source of funds for education freedom accounts. 
  • 3:30 p.m. HB 1114 relative to education service providers under the education freedom account program.

YouTube link for NH House Livestreams:  House Livestream

YouTube Link for NH Senate Livestreams: Senate Livestream