Fred Bramante (right), the president of the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, addresses lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees, on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Screenshot)
A coalition of news outlets in New Hampshire is requesting more transparency from the state’s education agency over a proposal to change the rules governing public schools.
For two years, New Hampshire’s Department of Education has been considering an overhaul to the state’s “minimum standards for public schools” – the guidelines that regulate what programs and policies public schools need to operate.
But some of the process has been kept from public view. The department has contracted with an outside organization, the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, which has led a 13-member task force dedicated to crafting the proposed rules. Those task force meetings have been closed to the public.
On Tuesday, representatives of the New Hampshire Press Association, the Granite State News Collaborative, and the New Hampshire First Amendment Coalition sent a letter to the department asking it to release any documentation related to the task force meetings under RSA 91-A, the state’s “right-to-know law.”
“We have been unable to find any public record documenting the meetings of the education reform committee chaired by Bramante since its contract was approved by the Executive Council in November 2020,” the letter states, referring to Fred Bramante, the president of the National Center for Competency-Based Learning and the former chairman of the State Board of Education. “We are also unable to locate any meeting minutes, records of votes or attendance listings, as prescribed by RSA 91-A.”
The letter added that the task force meetings held by Bramante count as “an advisory committee established by the governor by executive order or by the executive council” for the purposes of the statute. And they pointed to 1976 case of Bradbury v. Shaw, in which the New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled that a private committee that is heavily involved in government is subject to the right-to-know law.
In a statement Wednesday, a department spokesperson rejected the news outlets’ arguments, and said the task force discussions are not subject to the right-to-know law.
“The relationship between NHED and NCCBL is a contractual relationship,” the spokesperson said. “NCCBL is not part of NHED, nor is it subject to RSA 91-A. NCCBL’s contractual obligation to ‘convene and facilitate the work of a Task Force that includes representation from all stakeholders’ does not alter NCCBL’s legal relationship with NHED, nor transform NCCBL into a public body subject to RSA 91-A.”
A department attorney, Elizabeth Brown, sent a formal letter in response Wednesday that explained that the department would not be making the materials public.
The minimum standards for public education govern the basic requirements to operate a public school, ranging from school safety protocols to graduation requirements.
The rules, which are enforced by the State Board of Education, are due for a once-a-decade renewal, during which they can be changed. Under the process, the Department of Education may present to the state board a proposed rule change; the board must then start a 180-day review process that includes a public hearing period. The state board can then make changes and approve a final set of rules, which must later be approved by lawmakers on the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules.
Some public education advocates say they are worried the department will propose removing basic minimum requirements for public schools, allowing less wealthy school districts to reduce costs by cutting programs no longer required.
Bramante has said the goal is not to eliminate standards but to shift schools toward a “competency-based” system that allows students to graduate based on how much they understand the subject matter rather than how many classes they attended.
The department has not yet released its final proposal. After a series of closed-door meetings in 2021 and 2022 led by the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, the department produced a draft in March. Since the release of that draft, Bramante has conducted a series of public listening sessions to hear feedback from teachers and parents across the state.
Bramante and the department are likely to have a final draft ready by the Nov. 9 meeting of the State Board of Education, he testified to lawmakers last week.
Bramante has argued that the process has been transparent, pointing to the listening sessions, which he said have been held in a greater frequency than ever before.
“This has been the most inclusive process in the history of this document,” he told lawmakers in the House and Senate education committees at a meeting last week.
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