HB 323, The Most Important Education Bill of the Year

Contact your senator today about HB 323. We must pass the Hoell/Avard amendment or kill the bill. Save our kids.

HB 323 is a very critical bill as it is tied to New Hampshire’s Elementary and Secondary Education (ESEA), aka No Child Left Behind (NCLB), waiver. This waiver is the agreement that the state Department of Education makes with the US DOE so the state can have flexibility from some of the more punitive aspects of NCLB’s mandates. It also commits New Hampshire to contractual agreements with the feds for the next three years. This agreement drives many of the requirements the state DOE dictates to local school districts, such as the adoption of College and Career Readiness Standards (another name for Common Core) and the aligned assessments.

Common Core and the oppressive over-testing associated with the Smarter Balanced Assessments have been very controversial in the state the last few years, and only more so in recent months. So why should New Hampshire make more commitments to these failed experiments?

The New Hampshire Department of Education already submitted their waiver application, but it is not yet approved.

That brings up another question. Why is New Hampshire creating legislation that would bind the next legislature and our schools before the waiver is accepted? This is backwards and a poor legislative process.

While NCLB is widely considered to be a colossal education reform failure with its overemphasis on high-stakes testing, and unrealistic achievement expectations, it is also a gross over-reach of the federal government. The continuation of NCLB and the associated waiver only perpetuates these mandates as the state DOE chases federal funding, of which local schools may or may not benefit particularly after the costs of implementation are considered. Additionally, there are concerns that these ESEA waivers may not be legal because they are dictates from the US executive branch. The Cato Institute stated,

“…even a Congressional Research Service report often cited to suggest the opposite [that the ESEA waivers are legal] says they are unprecedented in scope and, hence, an untested case — and even if they are not deemed technically illegal, the reality is they still amount to the executive department unilaterally making law.”

Who is accountable to whom? Why is the state DOE chasing federal dollars that obligates NH to more expensive and possibly illegal requirements? It sells local control to the feds and turns accountability on its head. Given that the New Hampshire DOE receives 85% of its funding from the US DOE, it begs the question about whom they serve.

The state Department of Education shows distain and contempt by repeatedly denying opportunities for the public to participate in any meaningful discussion or decisions. As the DOE was preparing their ESEA waiver, the public’s only method for input was through an online survey service. The DOE did not hold any public hearing where taxpayers could participate. Also, the DOE Commissioner, Dr. Virginia Barry, recently declined an open invitation from the Manchester School Board to participate in a public meeting. In her reply, Dr. Barry said she already routinely meets with superintendents and school board members. However  she also said, ” A public meeting rarely accomplishes the kind of meaningful conversation necessary to support students and families in these complex times.” In other words, Dr. Barry believes that she and the DOE are not accountable to the public.

Virginia Barry (Refuses to Visit)  letter to Manchester School Board 4-8-15-page-001

This top-down approach to education skews accountability so that the local districts are more concerned with compliance to state and federal rules instead of local taxpayers and parents.

In truth the ESEA waiver has string attached and turns NH into a marionette for the US DOE.

These strings are woven throughout HB 323, especially the current version as passed on the House floor. This amendment written by Rep. Rick Ladd was rushed through the chamber on a busy session day and not given a thorough public vetting. This is the version currently before the Senate Education Committee, and it has multiple flaws:

  • It  continues the over testing of our elementary students in grades three through eight.
  • It specifically includes the Performance Assessment for Competency Education (PACE), which is only in the pilot stage in four districts — Sanborn Regional, Rochester, Epping, and Souhegan. It is not a proven and fully vetted program and therefore should not be written into state statute. (For more information, read PACE: the Next Educational Reform from the NH DOE.)
  • The criteria and approval would be tied to “certain readiness criteria,” which is a vague way of referring to College and Career Readiness Standards, aka  Common Core.
  • It gives broad powers to the state Department of Education that would enable them to develop criteria and an approval process to determine which school districts may use an alternative assessment, all without any checks-and-balances by the legislature.
  • Because PACE is an integrated assessment program, parents would not have any opt-out choice.

When HB 323 had its public hearing before the Senate Education Committee on April 16, 2015, two very different amendments were submitted by Rep. Glenn Cordelli and Rep. JR Hoell. Although efforts to encourage cooperation and communication were made, they apparently failed so the total effort looked poorly coordinated and disorganized.

Rep. Glenn Cordelli made an attempt that removed PACE and included a parental opt-out provision, but kept all the references to “readiness”(Common Core) standards and the broad authority for the state DOE. Rep. JR Hoell also drafted an amendment; the only one that completely addresses these problems and includes a specific opt-out provision for parents.

Chairman Sen. John Reagan was visibly upset that different amendments were introduced and asked a small group of activists to work with the representatives to reach a consensus before the bill was scheduled to be exec’d by the committee the following Tuesday, on April 21st.

While efforts were made to find agreement, Rep. Cordelli indicated that he liked the Hoell amendment, but believed that it was asking for too much to pass the senate.

Without telling anyone in the work group, Rep. Cordelli apparently “reached consensus” with Heather Gage of the state DOE and drafted yet another amendment. This is very concerning given the state DOE’s lack of transparency and accountability to the people of NH.

Just prior to the Senate Education Committee’s executive session on Tuesday, April 21, the group informed Sen. Reagan that the group had reached an agreement to move forward with the Hoell amendment, and that Sen. Kevin Avard would introduce it. Sen. Reagan was furious and scolded the group that they should have told him earlier.

Shortly thereafter it was revealed that Rep. Ladd and Sen. Reagan co-authored yet another amendment and the chairman planned to move forward with this version. In the hallway Rep. Ladd briefly described the amendment and said it would address the current version’s shortcomings. However, he refused to share a copy of it, and even claimed it was “confidential.”

As the session closed and the amendment was not yet introduced, Doris Hohensee asked Sen. Reagan for a copy. He nearly knocked her over, and was (again) obviously irate. With a clenched jaw and shaking hands, Sen. Reagan told her to get a copy from his secretary.

This new amendment does not match Rep. Ladd’s hype.

  • The Ladd/Reagan amendment removes PACE and nominally reduces testing in elementary grades.
  • It keeps the same blank-check power for the state DOE to develop approval criteria and a process for districts to seek permission to use alternative assessments.
  • The feds still have approval authority.
  • All references to “readiness” standards, aka Common Core, remain.
  • This amendment does not recognize parents’ refusal as one of the exceptions for student participation.

Put simply, the Ladd/Reagan amendment is seriously flawed and unacceptable.

2015- HB 323 Ladd Reagan amendment

It is very concerning that in nearly all its various incarnations, HB 323 violates the NH Republican party’s platform statements on education. The GOP platform specifically includes respect for parents’ right to direct their child’s education, uphold local control, and remove state and federal strings tied to mandates. Sen. Reagan and Representatives Ladd and Cordelli need a reminder of their party’s principles.

In stark contrast, the Hoell/Avard amendment would offer a true solution. Rep. JR Hoell referred to it in HB 323’s public hearing although it was not officially introduced. This is the only amendment that could salvage the bill.

  • This amendment significantly reduces testing at all grade levels.
  • It removes references to “readiness” standards.
  • It does not give the state DOE power to create new criteria and an approval process for districts to use alternative assessments. It also does not require federal approval for those choices.
  • Finally, it specifically recognizes parents’ rights to refuse their child’s participation in the assessments.
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Hoell/Avard amendment, page 1


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Hoell/Avard amendment, page 2

This chart is a concise comparison of the current version of HB 323 as passed by the House, the Ladd/Reagan amendment, and the Hoell/Avard amendment. The difference is clear.

HB 323 (2015) amendment graphic comparison

Unless the Hoell/Avard amendment can be introduced and passed, HB 323 must be defeated in the senate. Passing this amendment instead of the Ladd/Reagan amendment is a long-shot proposal because it is in direct opposition to one co-authored by the Chairmen of the House and Senate Education Committees. There will be considerable political pressure applied to have all Republican senators support the Ladd/Reagan bill.

Testing is not teaching. Our children’s education should not be based on failed education reform experiments. We should not relinquish control of our schools to state and federal agencies who are remote and inaccessible to the public. Laws should respect the checks-and-balances built into our political system. Parents’ rights must be respected. New Hampshire’s children deserve better.

Please tell every senator that only the Hoell/Avard version of HB 323 is acceptable. Unless they are willing to support it, the bill must fail. To find your senator, refer to the roster. A full list plus contact information is at the end of this post.

Also, please join us for a press conference on Tuesday, April 28 at 8:30am in the lobby of the Legislative Office Building.

The Senate Education Committee will vote on HB 323 shortly after the press conference. Unless amended, this bill would give the state DOE far-reaching authority to determine which districts could participate in alternative assessments. There would not be any checks-and-balances of their authority with the legislature. And, parents would be denied their right to direct their children’s education with these assessments that would be tied to federal approval and latest waiver requests.

Please join us immediately after the press conference in room 103 for the Senate Education Committee’s executive session. The public may not speak, but can listen to the senators debate and vote on HB 323.

Senate 2015-2016

Jeff Woodburn

Jeanie Forrester

Jeb Bradley

David Watters

David Pierce

Sam Cataldo

Andrew Hosmer

Gerald Little

Andy Sanborn

Molly Kelly

Gary Daniels

Kevin Avard

Bette Lasky

Sharon Carson

Dan Feltes

David Boutin

John Reagan

Donna Soucy

Regina Birdsell

Lou D’Allesandro

Martha Fuller Clark

Chuck Morse

Russell Prescott

Nancy Stiles