Republican lawmakers explore expanded role of school boards

As New Hampshire lawmakers consider a new slate of education laws next year, some are pushing to give school boards a more central role.

Representatives of the House Education Committee wrestled this month with a bill that would require school boards to approve textbooks and classroom content, write policies allowing parental review of books and reading lists and to conduct annual parent satisfaction surveys.

The bill, House Bill 1137, was voted to be sent to “interim consideration” by the legislature, removing it from the list of bills that get passed or killed. And this month, a subcommittee recommended that it not move forward in its current form.

But some Republican representatives say the bill provides a roadmap for future legislation. School boards should have more say in the content presented by teachers in their school district, and school administrators should defer more of those decisions to boards and parents, they argue.

“The school board is the first line of defense for parents,” said Rep. Deborah Hobson, a Republican from East Kingston, during a committee discussion of the bill Oct. 11. “If parents question the material, they go to the school board.”

A discussion of the bill captured a growing divide between Republicans and Democrats over accountability in public education. Conservatives have increasingly turned to school boards to address concerns about COVID-19 policies and educational content relating to race, sexuality and gender. Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to defend the role of teachers in choosing classroom materials and shaping their teaching style.

Rep. Linda Tanner, a Sunapee Democrat and former educator, argued that teachers should be the first line of defense for parents concerned with educational materials.

“I think unfortunately in this climate right now a lot of people are jumping the gun and going out in public or they’re going to the school board and shouting and shouting and protesting what they’re thinking there,” Tanner said. . “It’s much sweeter for the student, who becomes a kind of pawn in the whole thing… if it’s done with a teacher at the local level.”

During the discussion, Democrats on the education committee appeared skeptical of the proposed changes, arguing that school board approvals could undermine teachers’ choices and ability for them to build trust with parents by communicating on the content of the class.

Many of the functions of New Hampshire school boards are set out in the administrative rules of the Department of Education. They must approve an annual school budget; hold meetings at least every two months; adopt teacher hiring, appraisal and firing policies; adopt payment policies for equipment or services; ensure students have transportation; prevent violations of state anti-discrimination laws; and develop policies to respond to cases of sexual harassment.

Under state law, councils are “responsible for establishing the structure, accountability, advocacy, and delivery of education.” But this law does not go into detail, simply adding that they must create “educational policies that establish educational objectives based on available information about the knowledge and skills that students will need in the future”.

Rep. Glenn Cordelli, a Republican from Tuftonboro and the main sponsor of HB 1137, says those roles should be better defined. His bill would expand existing law to state that school boards “shall be responsible for approving and supervising the structure, content, accountability, advocacy and delivery of education” .

“My personal thought is that textbooks should be reviewed by board members for approval: a board vote to approve a new textbook,” Cordelli said.

The New Hampshire School Boards Association says school boards already have the ability to revise textbooks, as well as instructional materials and curricula. Some school boards exercise that power while others do not, Barrett Christina, the association’s executive director, said in testimony before lawmakers.

Despite the current law, Democrats have opposed requiring school boards to approve textbooks and educational content, arguing that many school board members would not be equipped for those decisions.

“I just wonder what the standard will be for school board members to approve and oversee content in areas they may not have expertise in,” said Rep. Sue Mullen, a Bedford Democrat. . “I certainly wouldn’t want to be in charge of chemistry content.”

Mullen added that allowing the board to make content decisions could cause confusion. “You put five people in the room and give them a problem, they see five different things,” she said. “I just don’t know what it would be for.”

The NH School Boards Association has not taken a position on the bill. But in her testimony, Christina agreed with some of the Democrats’ concerns.

“You would ask the school board member to be a content expert in everything taught at this school, from pre-K through AP Calculus through high school 12,” he said. “It’s a daunting task for the average school board member.”

Christina also raised the possibility that some textbooks or teaching materials could turn into political balloons.

“What I would worry about is that the curriculum changes every time there’s a new school board election,” he said. “And the curriculum is also expensive. Textbooks are not cheap. Software is not cheap.

But Republicans on the education committee — many of whom say they have served on school boards — view the roles of board members differently.

“They are the ones who should be in charge, are ultimately responsible for what’s in the classroom,” said Rep. Alica Lekas, a Republican from Hudson. “They have to approve the textbooks now. …And how can they do that if they haven’t even looked at what is being taught?

Rep. Ralph Boehm, a Republican from Litchfield, recalled serving on the town’s school board when his granddaughter, a ninth-grader in the district, showed him her history book.

“I said what? ‘” recalls Boehm. “It was completely biased. It wasn’t – you know, American history is supposed to show two sides and so on. Then I found out it was written by a professor from Oregon, well sure, so we got rid of that book the following year.

Cordelli recounted a time when he was a member of the Connecticut school board and successfully stopped the school from showing “The Godfather,” which he said was proposed for a lesson on early 20th-century American history. Cordelli also tried to convince his fellow board members to eliminate a history textbook he said misrepresented the Cold War.

“The Cold War chapter didn’t mention President Reagan or the Pope,” Cordelli said. “It was all about Gorbachev, which I thought was a misrepresentation of history.”

The board did not vote to scrap that manual, Cordelli recalled.

Representative Mike Moffett compared the process council members might follow to that of lawmakers.

“As lawmakers, I’m not sure we all read every bill before we vote on bills,” said Moffett, a Republican from Loudon. “And what we do here is we defer to the subject matter experts. But when there is a particular area or item of particular interest, that’s where we dig deeper.

While the bill is unlikely to be recommended by the full committee, the concepts will likely advance in some bills tabled for next year’s session, Cordelli said.

Lekas ​​agreed with this goal. “There are a lot of things that school districts don’t do if you don’t put them into law,” she said.

This story was originally posted by New Hampshire Bulletin.