Sununu Signs Off On Croydon Bill

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signs a school choice bill on Thursday, June 29, 2017, at the Croydon Village School in Croydon, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jovelle Tamayo

  • Christy Whipple, principal of the Newport Montessori School, applauds as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu signs a school choice bill on Thursday, June 29, 2017, at the Croydon Village School in Croydon, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jovelle Tamayo

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/30/2017 12:09:40 AM
Modified: 6/30/2017 12:09:47 AM

Croydon — Gov. Chris Sununu on Thursday visited the Croydon Village School to sign legislation known as the “Croydon bill” that allows some students to attend private school using public money.

More than 50 teachers, parents, children and school choice advocates crammed into the one-room K-4 schoolhouse that residents fondly refer to as “Little Red” in order to watch the event.

Now that Sununu has ratified the legislation, known as Senate Bill 8, towns such as Croydon that lack a public school for certain grades may send their students to nonsectarian private schools and pay the tuition with tax dollars.

“Did they let you out of school today to come to this?” the governor asked a young boy, whose mother, Croydon School Board Chairwoman Angi Beaulieu, stood beaming behind him, before sitting down to sign the bill.

After a few remarks — “There’s just a lot of folks who don’t understand the uniqueness of a town like Croydon,” Sununu said — the governor drew a sheet of paper out of a red folder, signed his name, and enjoyed a round of whoops and applause.

That brief moment of triumph was long in the making.

The Croydon School District in 2014 began sending a handful of children to nearby private schools, at first Kimball Union Academy and Newport Montessori School, using public funds.

Although the association with KUA petered out, Croydon has continued to enroll students at Montessori, whose annual tuition runs about $8,200 compared to Newport public schools’ $12,000. Two of those children are the son and daughter of Beaulieu, the current Croydon School Board chairwoman, and a third is her nephew.

Beaulieu rejected claims by some Croydon residents of a conflict of interest with what became the prime argument of the bill’s proponents: parents should have the right to choose the schools they deem most appropriate for their children.

“I know my child best,” she said during a tense cross-examination in Superior Court last March.

Once officials at the New Hampshire Department of Education caught wind of the practice, letter after letter arrived in the Croydon School Board’s mailbox calling the practice illegal and demanding that it stop.

Croydon did not stop. Instead, School Board members engaged a lawyer — former New Hampshire Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas — launched an online crowdfunding campaign to pay him, and fought back.

State officials sued the Croydon School District in 2015, obtaining an order from a Superior Court judge to stop the practice. Croydon appealed to the state’s highest court.

Meanwhile, the Croydon bill was working its way through the Legislature, supported by a group of state lawmakers that included then-Rep. Frank Edelblut, a Republican running a strong primary campaign for governor.

Edelblut, who went on to become the state commissioner of education, later was revealed to have given $1,000 to Croydon’s legal fund — presumably while he was still a legislator, although he never specified when the donation took place.

Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, vetoed the bill in 2016, expressing concern that it could hurt public schools.

Hassan said the legislation could be unconstitutional because it neither kept public money from being spent in parochial schools nor required accountability measures that ensure students are receiving a constitutionally “adequate” education at participating private schools.

This year’s version does exclude religious schools and includes a requirement that private schools administer educational assessments.

Around the time Hassan rejected the measure, Sununu visited Croydon during the campaign and, during a public forum with the School Board, told residents he would sign the bill as governor.

The New Hampshire Supreme Court in April approved a stay of the tuition case as the latest iteration of the bill worked its way through the Legislature, and soon enough it reached Sununu’s desk.

The Croydon bill, Sununu said before signing it on Thursday, is “so vital, providing a lot of choice for families and individuals — not just here in Croydon but in a lot of towns across the state. It’s going to be real transformative.”

The governor later estimated that about 12 New Hampshire communities could make use of the new school choice option.

Sununu thanked the bill’s sponsors, state Sen. Ruth Ward, R-Stoddard, and state Reps. Virginia Irwin, D-Newport, and Jim Grenier, R-Lempster, as well as the activists and parents who had made it happen.

A few participants in the libertarian Free State Project, including School Board member Jody Underwood, were present to witness the signing and said afterward that they had campaigned for the legislation’s passage.

Sununu also hinted to the crowd that there would be more to come.

“There’s a lot more to do,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it. But I think this is a great first step and a real signal to the families of New Hampshire that we’re making that change and that we’re really putting choice first.”

Speaking to reporters outside the schoolhouse, Sununu said later that he would support many school choice and wider educational initiatives to follow the Croydon bill: promoting career-oriented schools and programs, expanding funding for charter schools, and introducing educational savings accounts — an initiative often called a “voucher” program that would allow parents to spend their state “adequacy” aid where they prefer, whether it be public school, private or homeschool.

“We have to stop worrying about the system and start worrying about the kids,” Sununu said.

Choice programs like the Croydon bill’s have sparked fears among public education advocates that public schools will be weakened and the education system will become more segregated by wealth.

Brendon Browne, director of government relations for the New Hampshire branch of the National Education Association, predicted that the Croydon bill’s short-term effect would be limited because of the small number of students who could take advantage of it on short notice.

“Longer term, there are serious concerns about the constitutionality of public funds being diverted to private schools,” he said in an email Thursday evening.

“It also has serious problems because it treats students in towns with a public school different from those in a town that doesn’t,” Browne said. “New Hampshire’s Constitution demands equal access to education for all. It will not tolerate two classes of students.”

Although it remains to be seen what the wider effects of SB 8 will be in New Hampshire, advocates often note that Vermont has had a similar system in place for years.

Beaulieu, for one, said she was “thrilled” that years of effort had finally reached fruition.

“I am so excited right now,” she said minutes after the bill became law. “I am ecstatic for choice to be available for all kids in need. ... It makes it all worth it.”

Although Beaulieu said she was ready to “take a little break” after two intense years of court battles and school choice advocacy, she noted that the Croydon School Board had taken up this cause to satisfy residents’ needs and it should be prepared to do so again.

“It all depends on what our community wants,” she said.

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.




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