In spring 2021, the NH Department of Education allocated a $5.8 million federal grant to start the Recovering Bright Futures program and offer Prenda pods for students in grades Kindergarten through 8th grade. It was designed to offer both “public” pods through public-school districts and “community” pods as home education.
Even though the NH DOE successfully persuaded the executive council to extend Prenda’s contract through summer 2024 at their December 2021 meeting, Prenda enrollments have not met expectations. None of the four public-school pods came to fruition, and only 212 students are enrolled in community pods. Consequently, the NH DOE recently asked the Executive Council to cut funding by over 40% to $3.4 million.
Although Prenda pods provide a much-needed alternative and satisfy dozens of families, it is a poor formula for expanding educational opportunities.
From the beginning, homeschool support organizations expressed concerns that Prenda falls under the home education pathway for compulsory attendance yet does not have the same rights and responsibilities. The Home Education Advisory Council (HEAC) expressed great concern from the beginning, and have not received any response or guidance from the Commissioner when asked in June 2021. Prenda issues have been brought up at nearly every HEAC meeting since, and included in HEAC’s annual report given to the state BOE and DOE in August 2022.
While it was expedient for the NH DOE’s implementation to categorize Prenda as home education, community pods do not match several key areas that define home education and lead to confusion and potential additional regulation.
Prenda is a Poor Fit with Homeschooling
Home education is regulated by RSA 193-A and Ed 315.
Homeschooling is available to all students in grades 1 through 12; Prenda is available for students in kindergarten through grade 8. Because Prenda is available to children in kindergarten, program administration often requires families to file home ed notifications for these students, going beyond state requirements. When GSHE inquired about this inconsistency, senior Prenda officials excused it by saying it was their “standard protocol” in other states. GSHE continues to receive questions from families and Participating Agencies about notification for kindergarten students enrolling in Prenda.
NH home education law expressly requires parents and guardians to maintain portfolios for their children that include a reading log and work samples of whatever the child did throughout their academic year. By comparison, Prenda keeps the child’s records and officials tell parents that they are not required to maintain a portfolio. This shifts the responsibility to the provider, which is not available to other homeschooling families, including those that use other full-time programs.
Additionally, all NH homeschoolers are required to complete an annual assessment per RSA 193-A:6. Families may choose to do a standardized test, an evaluation by a certified teacher or one currently employed at a NH nonpublic school, or something else their Participating Agency agrees to that shows the child’s progress commensurate with his/her age, ability, and/or disability. By comparison, Prenda families may opt-out of the annual assessment. While they have a “guide” for each pod, this adult may or may not be a certified teacher and is not employed at one of NH’s private schools because Prenda is not approved to operate as a nonpublic school. No other homeschooling family may opt-out of the annual assessment or have a teacher evaluation completed by someone who is not qualified per the NH statute to do so. If the other testing Prenda administers to students is treated as the annual assessment, then families should receive prior approval from their Participating Agency like other homeschooling families. Prenda pods have an inconsistent and inequitable application of NH’s home education requirements.
Prenda community pods closely resemble NH home education, but have significant differences to key rights and responsibilities as prescribed in state law. If Prenda was treated like other education providers available to families, like co-ops and enrichment programs and not funded by the state, then it would not have this special status.
Even though Prenda’s contract will expire in summer 2024, there may be other programs initiated by the NH DOE to expand educational alternatives so this is a concern whether it is specific to Prenda or some other program the DOE may bring forward.
If it is the will of the Department of Education and legislature to make more educational options available to NH families, then do not use home education as the catch-all alternative when programs do not neatly fit into one of the four educational pathways.
Every government intervention [in the marketplace] creates unintended consequences, which lead to calls for further government interventions. — Ludwig von Mises
Threat of More Regulation
Prenda and KaiPod Learning, two programs funded by federal grants to the NH DOE that serve a limited number of students, expose all traditional homeschoolers to legislative threats by school-choice opponents even though the vast majority of 193-A homeschools have zero financial support from any funding program.
KaiPod Learning is another program available via a $400K federal grant to the NH Department of Education. It is expressly not an education provider, and offers adult-supervised enrichment environments for up to 40 students in Manchester and Dover. It is also scheduled to run through September 2024 as a pilot program.
The Education Freedom Account program that is entirely funded by the state is often conflated with home education although it is an entirely separate educational pathway to satisfy compulsory attendance and governed by a different state statute and education rule. Many members of the legislature, media, and even participating families, confuse these two educational options and think they’re the same or interchangeable.
To date there are 11 bills filed regarding the EFA program for 2023, the majority of which are hostile to the program. There is also a lawsuit filed against Commissioner Edelblut over the funding of the program.
There is a bill by Rep. Linda Tanner, LSR #0509, regarding background checks on “providers that accept public funds.” This is a return of HB 1664 (2022) that turned into an attack on traditional homeschoolers although the overwhelming majority of these families are not supported with taxpayer funding.
This is why many independent homeschoolers are concerned about these DOE-contracted providers such as Prenda and KaiPod Learning, the confusion with the EFA, and whatever else the DOE and legislature may create going forward.
Instead of attacking families, legislation like LSR #0509 should mandate that DOE contracts require providers to perform background checks on personnel with direct contact with children. Put constraints on government, not families.
Home education is the most autonomous educational option available to New Hampshire families, and it must remain unencumbered by government programs, even those that are well-intended. Anything funded by government can be controlled by government, and that is antithetical to the freedoms and principles of homeschooling in the Granite State.
“The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” — Thomas Sowell
Update 1/12/23: LSR #0509 is now HB 628 and the language is available.
By Michelle Levell