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A Search for the Right Choice: Parents, Public Schools Battle Over Private Education

  • Noah McIntire talks with his mother Tanya McIntire at their home in Grantham, N.H., on May 29, 2018. The family is requesting their public school district pay to send Noah to private schools under the state's manifest educational hardship law.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noah McIntire plays with the family dog, Jacob, at his home in Grantham, N.H., on May 29, 2018. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Noah McIntire shows his mother Tanya McIntire the work he has done on their house in Grantham, N.H., on May 29, 2018. Noah had been scraping the house in preparation of painting. The family is requesting their public school district pay to send Noah to private schools under the state's manifest educational hardship law. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, June 02, 2018

Grantham — Tanya McIntire knew that her son Noah struggled in traditional school settings long before their family took a vacation last summer to watch the solar eclipse in Oregon.

But on that trip, the Grantham parent noticed just how difficult a time Noah was having in public school. Although her son had been diagnosed in second grade with a learning disability related to reading and writing, McIntire said, she still became alarmed when Noah, who was attending Lebanon High School and played on the lacrosse team, had trouble reading unfamiliar signs and maps during the vacation.

McIntire, a teacher herself, came to believe that her son needed more attention than educators in the public school system could offer.

Soon after returning, McIntire said, she chanced upon the campus of the Holderness School, a private high school near Plymouth, N.H., while searching for lunch one day. She recalled walking into the admissions office and learning about the programs there.

“Within hours, it was like, ‘Oh, this is perfect,’ ” she said in an interview last month. “It was like a total miracle.”

“I wasn’t looking for Holderness, Holderness chose my son and we said yes,” McIntire added.

While few people would think of enrolling a child in private school as controversial, McIntire’s next step proved to be just that.

Shortly after her son interviewed at the Holderness School, McIntire approached the Grantham School District and asked it to cover his tuition, which next school year will range from $41,600 for day students to $63,000 for boarding students.

The resulting battle between McIntire and education officials is one that some public school advocates say is becoming more common in New Hampshire, as parents attempt to use a state law that allows struggling students to move between public schools to instead enroll their children in private schools at taxpayer expense.

The parents argue that such circumstances as bullying, ineffective help from school staff and poor school performance should allow children an option other than public school. But public school advocates worry that some are trying to bend the rules to open a back door for school choice in the Granite State.

“Parents are trying to misuse the statute,” said Bill Duncan, a former member of the state Board of Education and founder of the advocacy group Advancing New Hampshire Public Education.

Duncan, a former business executive, cautioned that if efforts like McIntire’s are successful, the result “amounts to open-ended school choice.”

State Law on Educational Hardship

At first, McIntire told the Grantham School Board that she was looking to have Noah’s tuition covered under a new law that allows towns lacking a public school for certain grades to send students to nonsectarian private schools. Known as the “Croydon Bill,” the statute signed by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu last June allows public education dollars to pay for private school tuition.

But the Grantham School Board denied McIntire’s request, saying the district has an agreement to send students from the town to Lebanon High School. The new law didn’t apply to Grantham, they said, because officials there had designated a public school for students.

So McIntire advanced a different rationale. She argued that Noah’s placement at Lebanon High School qualified as a “manifest educational hardship” and requested a hearing before the School Board.

New Hampshire’s manifest educational hardship law allows parents or guardians to request a change of schools if they can prove their student’s academic, physical or personal needs aren’t being met by their current school. Parents are required to first make their case to a local superintendent and school board and, if unsuccessful, can appeal to a state arbitrator and the New Hampshire Board of Education.

Under the law, student placement is limited to “another school within the same school district; or ... another school within the same school administrative unit; or ... a school district in another school administrative unit.”

Grantham school officials said that Noah’s school performance was acceptable, and argued that even if a hardship were present, they couldn’t spend public money sending him to a private school.

This is the second time that McIntire has enrolled her son in a private school and requested a manifest educational hardship to recoup the costs. Noah McIntire was taken out of the Grantham Village School and sent to the Mid Vermont Christian School in Quechee in 2009. However, Grantham and state officials denied reimbursing the tuition on the grounds that private schools are not an acceptable placement under the hardship law.

In 2017, both the Grantham School Board and state arbitrator again denied McIntire’s request, leaving her to appeal the decision to the New Hampshire Board of Education in March.

“Given the fact that Grantham School is a wonderful school, what is the problem, why couldn’t he learn?” McIntire asked the board, according to a video recording of the meeting. “What I have come to conclude is that every time he went to a private school where it was very structured and disciplined, he does fine. When he’s in the public school, it’s just too much for him and he loses his ability to perform.”

“I can tell you that his grades have gone from Ds and Cs to Bs in three quarters,” she said of his move to Holderness from Lebanon High.

McIntire was supported at the hearing by Margaret Drye, a school choice advocate from Plainfield who ran as a Republican for the New Hampshire House in 2017. (She lost to a Democrat from Grantham.)

During the March meeting, state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut inquired whether the school district considered Noah’s SAT scores adequate. He had performed lower than the state median, according to meeting minutes.

Board of Education Chairman Drew Cline also asked about Noah’s grades, and was told by district officials he had a 2.99 GPA while enrolled at Lebanon High. Grantham’s superintendent and attorney then declined to discuss the matter further, saying students’ records should be kept private, according to the minutes.

Instead of making a ruling, the board instead referred McIntire’s case again to arbitration. To make a decision, they said, the board needs a recommendation from an arbitrator as to whether a hardship has occurred.

The move appeared to anger Grantham School District attorney Jim O’Shaughnessy, who had argued that the district couldn’t, by law, pay for private tuition, and the case should be thrown out.

“I think the state board is not following the law. You’re not abiding by your own precedent,” he told the board during its March meeting.

“I think you are using this as an opportunity to push back on the school districts and make them have to go back and re-litigate something where the law is absolutely clear,” O’Shaughnessy continued. “The only role you have is to decide whether there is a manifest educational hardship or not, and whether the parent is entitled to reassignment to a public school.”

He also noted that the Holderness School is not an approved special education school.

‘A Formula for Chaos’

O’Shaughnessy, who declined to comment on the case this month, isn’t the only one concerned by the board’s decision.

It’s possible that the Board of Education could be maneuvering to a new interpretation of the hardship law, one that favors parents, said Duncan, the public education advocate.

While such a change might seem innocuous, he said, it has the potential to dramatically impact how administrators interact with parents. Rather than school boards and officials determining whether a student needs help, that determination could be placed in parents’ hands, potentially leading to a greater number of appeals in the system, Duncan warned.

“The point is to make it so that if a parent feels there is a hardship, the burden is on the local school board to respond and satisfy the parent as to the appropriateness of the response,” he said. “It’s a formula for chaos in school administration.”

Duncan said that Edelblut, the education commissioner, attempted to change the rules governing manifest educational hardships last year. Edelblut’s proposed rules would have reduced the role of local superintendents in decision making and provided parents with an lower threshold to prove their case.

Another proposed rule change also sought to add private schools as a possible option for school reassignment, Duncan said.

Edelblut, who advocated for the Croydon Bill and school choice as a Republican state legislator, said that officials should stick to the “fidelity of the underlying” hardship law.

”One parent might think this is a hardship, another parent might think it’s a good thing,” he said in a phone interview. “So, the parents have a wide berth to make their (case) as to whether that hardship exists and the school boards are afforded a wide berth in terms of trying to figure out what kind of remedy might respond to that, including not doing anything.”

During an October Board of Education meeting, Edelblut expanded on that view, saying the current hardship regulation lacks “fidelity to the law” by placing burdens on parents and confusing the role of school boards and superintendents, according to meeting minutes.

His proposed rule changes were ultimately rejected by the state board in March. A legislative effort to enact similar proposals was rejected this year by lawmakers, as was a bill that would have allowed low-income parents to use the state’s basic per-pupil grant of about $3,000 for private or home schooling.

Other education advocates say they aren’t alarmed by the Board of Education’s actions, but do caution against changing or reinterpreting the hardship rules.

“On the whole, the current statute and current Department of Education rules work fine,” said Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association.

School boards across the Granite State take parents’ requests seriously, and work hard to resolve any concerns that come forward, he said.

However, Christina also acknowledged that the decisions of local boards are being more frequently appealed.

That uptick could be related to public discussions over school choice, and passage of the Croydon bill, said Dan Vallone, policy director for the group Reaching Higher NH.

It’s also possible that parents are placing a greater priority on student wellness and health, he said. Some parents want to see their child moved to a school they perceive as more nurturing, Vallone said.

“It’s a very complex topic, in part because it deals with what’s in the best interest of a child and how do we act as good stewards of public funds?” Vallone said. “Trying to navigate those dynamics is difficult.”

Regardless of how a hardship is determined, the state should take a closer look at the obstacles facing families requesting help, said Michelle Levell, director of School Choice for NH.

Of all the cases brought forward to the Board of Education over the last 16 years, only two were reversed, she said in a phone interview.

“These are families that are still in some need of resolution,” Levell said, adding it can cost thousands to hire lawyers to walk families through proceedings.

Cline, chairman of the Board of Education, made a similar argument last month, after the board granted a hardship to a high school sophomore wishing to continue attending Pinkerton Academy, an independent school in Derry that serves as the high school of record for several towns in the area. The girl had moved to another town to live with her mother full-time after her father, who had a condo in Derry, died, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

“I think it’s a factor in explaining why parents don’t usually win before the state board,” said Cline, who is also president of the conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

A Battle in Dresden

Hanover parents Nancy Menton and Daniel Mendelsohn found out just how difficult requesting a hardship can be after pulling their daughter out of Hanover High School in 2014.

Their daughter faced bullying at the public high school, according to her parents. And when they felt educators failed to respond adequately to their concerns, Menton and Mendelsohn enrolled her at The Sharon Academy, where tuition now is $15,130.

“Public versus private wasn’t the issue, cost was,” Mendelsohn said of the decision during a recent phone interview. “We were thinking about our child first.”

Under state law, the names of students seeking a manifest educational hardship and school records are treated as confidential. And while McIntire named her son during public proceedings, Menton and Mendelsohn did not name their daughter.

In the summer of 2014, the parents met with administrators at Hanover High School and requested tuition reimbursement for the remainder of their child’s high school years. But after delivering requested information, they didn’t hear back until May 2015, when the couple was informed that the Dresden School Board had met in private and declined to reimburse the tuition costs.

Menton and Mendelsohn appealed, setting off a yearslong legal battle that’s still ongoing.

An official at the New Hampshire Department of Education heard the case in 2016, and recommended it be dismissed because The Sharon Academy is not a public school. But the state Board of Education sent the case back to the Dresden School Board, which it ordered to hold a hearing that included the parents.

Both the Dresden board and another state official then again held hearings and recommended the case be dismissed in 2017. The Board of Education responded by ordering another local hearing because, like McIntire’s case, no one had determined whether there was an actual hardship.

The case is now before the New Hampshire Supreme Court, with Dresden’s attorneys arguing that the Board of Education erred by not dismissing Menton and Mendelsohn’s request outright.

“(The district) is prohibited from reimbursing the parents for the tuition paid to The Sharon Academy, a private school,” Dresden attorney Dean Eggert argued in court documents.

But both Menton and Mendelsohn said they’re not fighting the district for school choice, but because of how they were treated by district officials. No one offered a public school placement elsewhere or attempted to resolve their concerns about Hanover High School, the parents said.

“That was never addressed until (our child) graduated,” Mendelsohn said. “I would like to see accountability at the local board and administration levels.”

The Supreme Court is still deciding whether to take the case, and Dresden Superintendent Jay Badams declined to comment on the matter.

As for the McIntire case, that will again be heard by an arbitrator in June to determine if Noah faces a manifest educational hardship.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Clarification

This story has been updated on the web to clarify some time references and that Holderness School is in Holderness, N.H., near Plymouth.