Republican NH lawmakers explore expanding role of school boards

Some GOP representatives say school boards should have more say in the content presented by teachers in their district.

Republican NH lawmakers explore expanding role of school boards
NH School Boards Association Executive Director Barrett Christina addresses members of the House Education Committee on Oct. 11. (Screenshot via New Hampshire Bulletin)

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

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

The bill, House Bill 1137, was voted to be sent to “interim study” by the Legislature, taking it off the list of bills that are passed or killed. And this month, a subcommittee recommended that it not advance 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 their school district’s teachers, and school administrators should defer more of those decisions to the boards and to parents, they argue.

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

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

Rep. Linda Tanner, a Sunapee Democrat and former educator, argued 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 jump the gun and they go to the public or they go to the school board and scream and yell and protest what they think there,” Tanner said. “It’s much more gentle on the student, who becomes a kind of a pawn in the whole deal … if it’s done with a teacher on the local level.”

During the discussion, Democrats on the Education Committee appeared skeptical of the proposed changes, arguing that the school board approvals could undermine teachers’ choices and the opportunity for them to establish trust with parents by communicating about the classroom content.

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Many of the duties of school boards in New Hampshire are laid out in the Department of Education’s administrative rules. They must approve an annual school budget; hold meetings at least every two months; adopt policies for hiring, evaluating, and dismissing teachers; adopt policies for paying for equipment or services; ensure that students have transportation; prevent violations of the state’s anti-discrimination laws; and craft policies to respond to sexual harassment cases.

Under state statute, boards are “responsible for establishing the structure, accountability, advocacy, and delivery of instruction.” But that statute does not go into specifics, simply adding that they must create “instructional policies that establish instructional goals based upon available information about the knowledge and skills pupils will need in the future.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’d be asking the school board member to be a content expert in everything that’s being taught in that school from pre-K to AP Calculus in the 12th year of high school,” he said. “That’s a tall task for the average school board member.”

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Christina also raised the potential that certain textbooks or instructional materials could turn into political footballs.

“What I would be concerned about is curriculum changing every time there’s a new school board election,” he said. “And curriculum is expensive, too. Textbooks are not cheap. The software programs are not cheap.”

But Republicans on the Education Committee – many of whom say they have served on school boards – see the roles of board members differently.

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

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

“I said, ‘What?’” Boehm recalled. “It was completely biased. It wasn’t – you know, American history is supposed to show two sides and whatnot. Then I found out it was written by some Oregon professor, of course. So we got rid of that book the next year.”

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

“The chapter on the Cold War did not mention President Reagan or the pope,” Cordelli said. “It was all about Gorbachev, which I thought was a misstatement of history.”

The board did not vote in favor of removing that textbook, Cordelli recalled.

Rep. Mike Moffett compared the process board members could take to that of lawmakers.

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

While the bill will not likely be recommended by the full committee, the concepts will likely advance into some legislation filed for next year’s session, Cordelli said.

Lekas agreed with that goal. “There are a lot of things that school districts don’t do if you don’t put it in statute,” she said.

This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com.