Senate Bill (SB 266), a bill that was written by the NH Department of Education, is raising flags among lawmakers and education experts as having potentially drastic consequences for public schools. The bill would completely repeal and replace the most important sections of state law that govern public schools, including RSA 193-E, which defines what an adequate education is in New Hampshire and how much the state pays for it.
The NH Department of Education has been presenting SB 266 as a “housekeeping” bill, but its implications and impact could go far beyond simply cleaning up language in state laws.
As written, the bill could redefine the state’s role in the delivery of public education under RSA 193-E by:
- Removing the state’s role in establishing minimum standards for public school approval beyond the subject areas defined
- Redefining “school” to add any program authorized by the New Hampshire State Board of Education
- Removing music and visual arts from requirements in arts education
SB 266 also makes changes to key education laws by:
- Removing the statutory definition of “competency”
- Eliminating reference to the use of the SAT or ACT as a statewide assessment tool at the high school level
- Removing the requirement of site visits to ensure schools are offering an adequate education
The bill passed the Senate in March after little study or debate, but has been held up in the House Education Committee over concerns about the impact that it will have. House Education Chair Rick Ladd (R-Haverhill), who has led three lengthy work sessions on the bill, delayed the committee vote that was scheduled for Tuesday, April 25.
UPDATE: On Wednesday, May 3, the House Education Committee voted to retain SB 266, saying that they will work on it over the summer and through the fall.
Download a PDF of the proposed changes here.
SB 266 in context
SB 266 comes as Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is under fire for his testimony in a school funding lawsuit, where he tried to detach the state’s responsibility to provide an adequate education from its responsibility to operate its public schools. The Commissioner asserted his view that public schools aren’t the only way that the state can meet its constitutional obligation to offer an adequate education, reinforcing concerns that he does not support public schools.
It also comes after a nearly year-long debate over his attempt to overhaul the state’s Minimum Standards for Public School Approval, which have raised concerns that they could weaken and undermine New Hampshire public schools.
Removing the state’s role in school approval standards
SB 266 appears to limit the state’s responsibility to establish minimum standards for public school approval to defining the core subject areas, the school year, and the minimum credit requirement necessary to earn a high school diploma.
The minimum standards for core subject areas are just one small part of the existing public school approval standards. Other elements of the minimum standards for public school approval include credit and testing requirements, class sizes, and minimum instructional time, among others. Limiting the state’s role in establishing these school approval standards could reduce the authority of the legislature as well as the responsibility of the state to oversee and fund those other essential elements of the school approval standards.
By seemingly eliminating the state’s authority over school approval standards outside of the core subject areas, it could limit the state from adopting non-content area standards, like testing requirements, and class sizes, among others. State agencies can only adopt rules as directed by the state legislature. If an adequate education is only defined by the core subject areas included in state law, it could mean that the State Board of Education cannot adopt many of the existing school approval standards at all, unless they are referenced in other parts of statute.
Redefining “school” in state law
SB 266 redefines “school” in state law to include any program “authorized by the New Hampshire State Board of Education.” This critical section of the proposed law could fundamentally change what programs and organizations would be eligible to offer public education and receive state funding.
One program that could be included in this definition is the Commissioner’s “Learn Everywhere” program, which was authorized based on a single-line change in state law. Under Learn Everywhere, schools are required to award credit for programs that are approved by the State Board of Education, even if those credits do not align with district-specific requirements. When it was approved by the Board in 2018, educators and advocates feared that it would create two parallel education systems.
Since its passage, concerns over parallel education systems have only grown with the NHED’s state contract with Prenda microschools, the introduction of school vouchers, and growing attempts at undermining public schools.
Removing music and visual arts: another bite at the apple
Commissioner Frank Edelblut attempted to overhaul the state’s public school system in 2022 by removing art, health and physical education, engineering, computer science, digital literacy, and world languages from the core academic domains in House Bill 1671. The bill was changed by the House Education Committee to preserve those core academic domains.
The NHED appears to be trying it again, although on a slightly smaller scale, by removing “music and visual arts” as state-mandated areas of an arts education.
HB 1671 faced significant criticism from the public. “This legislation will clearly exacerbate already existing opportunity gaps which exist between communities in NH…This appears to be saying [that] since we can not address the known existing funding disparity issues, we will attempt to provide relief by reducing what we believe is essential to be an educated citizen. This approach does not support the students in New Hampshire schools who need a well-rounded, comprehensive public education,” wrote a school leader from Bow.
Removing the statutory definition of “competencies”
SB 266 would remove the statutory definition of competencies, which could have significant implications for competency-based education in New Hampshire.
New Hampshire has been a leader in competency-based education since public schools moved to the model in 2005. Under a competency-based education model, students earn credit and move forward by demonstrating mastery of knowledge and skills, rather than seat time.
Eliminating reference to SAT day in state law
In 2017, New Hampshire joined eight other states in participating in the School Day SAT, where all high school juniors take the College Board SAT. In New Hampshire, the SAT is used as the annual statewide exam required under federal and state law.
Students take the SAT free of charge, during the regular school day. When implemented in 2017, it was viewed as a way for the state to help students, particularly those who didn’t see themselves as college-bound, access a normally expensive exam. And, by using it as the required statewide assessment, it cut down on the number of standardized tests that high school juniors would have to take.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, many colleges and universities have become test-optional or test-blind, but some — including MIT — have restored testing requirements.
Standardized tests, especially admissions tests like the SAT, are highly controversial, with experts pointing out that standardized tests are more a measure of family income and other factors than academic performance. Others have said that offering the exam can open the door for students who didn’t see themselves as college-ready, or who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to take the exam.
SB 266 would eliminate the reference to SAT Day in state law, and instead allow the NH Department of Education to enter into contracts with “testing vendors” through a contracting process. While the elimination does not necessarily prohibit the NHED from contracting with the College Board to administer the SAT, it could mean that the choice of vendors would be the responsibility of the NHED rather than the legislature.
Removing site visit requirements
The bill would also remove the state’s requirement to visit schools to ensure that they are meeting the minimum standards for public school approval, and instead make the visits optional.
Under current law, the NHED must visit public schools on a rotating basis every five years to support districts in meeting the academic, safety, and other requirements required by state law and administrative rules.
SB 266 would make the visits optional. NHED officials cited a lack of staff and resources as the reason for the change.
SB 266 remains in the House Education Committee. There is a full committee work session scheduled for the bill on Wednesday, May 3 at 10:45 a.m. in LOB 205-207.
The reporting deadline for the bill is Thursday, June 1, 2023, although the committee is expected to vote on the bill in May.
New Hampshire residents can contact committee members by emailing HouseEducationCommittee@leg.state.nh.us