Edelblut Says Public Schools Should Strive To Be Best Choice For Parents

Apr 19, 2017

Frank Edelblut
Credit Peter Biello

  Now two months into the job, New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut says he's been impressed by what he's seen far in his visits to schools across the state.

But as the state considers legislation that would vastly expand school choice options for parents, Edelblut says the goal for public schools is clear.

"We want to make sure that our public education systems are not only one of the choices for parents when they’re making educational decisions for their students, but how about one of the best opportunities for them," Edelblut said, speaking to NHPR's Morning Edition.

Edelblut recalled a visit to a charter school in an impoverished part of the state, which had 259 students apply for four open seats.

"Those parents have recognized that education may be the only way out of generational poverty," he said. "And so the challenge that we have in the public education system is to say OK, how come we don’t have 259 folks lining up outside our schools wanting to get in."

Edelblut also shared his thoughts on SB 193, a bill that would create "Education Freedom Savings Accounts." Parents could use public money to send their children to private schools, including those with religious affiliation. The money could also be used for home school programs, or other education expenses.

Edelblut pushed back on using the term "voucher" to describe the program.

"A voucher would function somewhat differently than this, if you want to get down to the technicalities of it because as that bill is crafted right now the funding would go to a scholarship organization which would have an Education Freedom Savings Account that would then allow the parents to take that funding and use it towards the education of their students in a number of different ways."

As someone who home schooled his seven children, Edelblut was asked whether he would take advantage of the program. 

"I can tell you that probably I would not accept that option," he said. "This is how important education is to my students, my children. I want to basically have 100 percent control over what that looks like.  

Edelblut stressed he hasn't taken a position on the bill, though he did publicly criticize the state Board of Education at a meeting earlier this month for taking a position against the bill.

"I was disappointed because I didn’t think that was a bill that state Board of Education needed to weigh in on," Edelblut said. "If you look at how the board went through their deliberative process, they basically listened to one side of an argument and then formulated a deliberative position against that particular bill. I just thought it was a better process if a group listens to both sides and then makes a decision in terms of how they go forward.

You can read the entire interview below: 

Your nomination faced fervent opposition from those concerned about your lack of experience in public education. What was your reaction to those concerns?

I appreciate that people were concerned about that. I think much of the concern stemmed from the fact that they perceived or at least it was characterized probably publicly that a decision to home educate was a decision against something else. I don’t see education as a zero-sum game. My decision to home educate my children reflects a passion for education, and I’m bringing that passion to my job right now. And part of that is the ability to listen and learn from the folks that are out on the front lines who are doing the work now. And I just appreciate the opportunity to get to spend time with them, learn from them, and work with them to craft policies that will hopefully allow us to continue to make that shift from an industrial-age model into an information-age model.

Is there something that you’ve seen so far in your travels around the state that has surprised you a bit or turned your head from a position you might have had before? Or something that popped out to you?

So what I am encouraged by and impressed by is the creativity that we see around the state in terms of educators recognizing the need for this shift and trying to come up with creative options in order to get there. What we want more than anything else is for our students to get the best possible educational opportunities available to them. I can tell you a story about a charter school. It’s in one of our more economically-challenged parts of the state. This particular charter school has four open seats available and there were 259 students who applied. So those parents have recognized that education may be the only way out of generational poverty. And so the challenge that we have in the public education system is to say OK, how come we don’t have 259 folks lining up outside our schools wanting to get in. And so we want to make sure that our public education systems are not only one of the choices for parents when they’re making educational decisions for their students, but how about one of the best opportunities for them.

I don't see education as a zero-sum game. My decision to home educate my children reflects a passion for education, and I'm bringing that passion to my job right now.

  Do you consider yourself an advocate for public schools?

I consider myself an advocate for the education of all our students. That’s what I’m an advocate for. And let me tell you how this kind of plays out. As I’m going into the schools, there are two themes that I engage all of the schools and the educators and administration with. The first is when I come into the school, I say tell me about parental voice in your system. And inevitably when I say tell me about parental voice, they begin to talk to me about parental engagement. They say they have this barbeque or we have this event and we draw parents out and we get a lot of people. And I say OK, parental engagement is very good, but parental voice is a little bit different. Parental voice is a circumstance where you actually engage the parents in some of the educational decisions for their students. And by doing that, you get them to put skin in the game; they have a vested interest in both the success of their child, and the educational success of the school to which their child is going. And there are examples of that around the state that are working really well and I just appreciate the work that those folks are doing.

The other thing that I focus on is I say to talk to me about what we’re doing to personalize the educational opportunities for students. That is a philosophy that recognizes students are different, they learn differently, they learn at different paces, they’re coming into the system at different levels. And so how can we meet the student where they are, and help them to grow.

Our conversation turned to a bill making its way through the legislature that would establish what would essentially be a school voucher system for New Hampshire families.

The bill, SB 193, creates what are called Education Freedom Savings Accounts, allowing parents to use public money for private and, in some cases, religious schools.

Edelblut clarified what he describes as misinformation around the debate:

This is not a program in the current bill that is available to individuals who have already made a choice to go to private school. It is only available to public school students and home educated students. The one exception to that is for students who are entering the system for the first time, they also would be eligible.

But in effect it would take public money and it would let families go to private schools with it, including religious and home schoolers as well, so it is in effect a voucher program, is it not?

I’m going to actually use the terms of the bill because it isn’t a voucher. A voucher would function somewhat differently than this, if you want to get down to the technicalities of it because as that bill is crafted right now the funding would go to a scholarship organization which would have an Education Freedom Savings Account that would then allow the parents to take that funding and use it towards the education of their students in a number of different ways. It is not limited to private school and home schools. They may in fact show up at another public school that is more amenable for whatever reason. That could be a school that they choose. So people are going to make educational choices that they believe are best for their children.

Home school students in the state could get these funds. You home schooled your children. Would you have wanted that money?

I’ve never been presented with it, but I can tell you that probably I would not accept that option.

Why?

Just because I am, again, this is how important education is to my students, my children. I want to basically have 100 percent control over what that looks like.  

While Edelblut stressed he isn’t taking a position on the bill, he did publicly criticize the state Board of Education for taking a position against the bill at a recent meeting:

“I’m disappointed in the action you just took on 193 because I believe that was an opportunity to give parents voice in education. And there is much misinformation about that. But again, that’s a decision that the board is making.”

We asked Edelblut to clarify his comments, which could be considered advocacy for the bill:

I was disappointed because I didn’t think that was a bill that state Board of Education needed to weigh in on. If you look at how the board went through their deliberative process, they basically listened to one side of an argument and then formulated a deliberative position against that particular bill. I just thought it was a better process if a group listens to both sides and then makes a decision in terms of how they go forward. My disappointment was dealing more with process, than with outcome.

There’s likely to be a legal challenge to public funds going to private and religious schools.

So there may or may not be, but we have a new attorney general, and I’m sure he’d be happy to weigh in on that.