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Upper Valley Reacts to DeVos

  • U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addresses the department staff at the Department of Education on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 2/9/2017 12:15:25 AM
Modified: 2/9/2017 3:37:05 PM

West Lebanon — Betsy DeVos’ narrow confirmation as secretary of education this week spelled bitter news for the educational establishment, which had strongly opposed the billionaire Republican donor’s nomination to President Donald Trump’s Cabinet.

But in the Upper Valley, some proponents of school choice and home-schooling are cautiously optimistic that DeVos and her decadeslong support for charter schools and vouchers might bolster their own cause in New Hampshire and Vermont schools.

DeVos’ confirmation on Tuesday — which required Vice President Mike Pence to break a 50-50 tie — has particular resonance in New Hampshire, where first-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has nominated Frank Edelblut, a business executive who has home-schooled his seven children, to lead the state’s education department.

Like DeVos, Edelblut has no experience in public school administration and has similarly advocated school choice in the pursuit of a more individually tailored education.

“I like the fact they can both be open-minded, and look at (their jobs) from a different perspective,” said Angi Beaulieu, chairwoman of the Croydon School Board.

The Croydon School Board has appealed to the state Supreme Court a lower court ruling that backed a New Hampshire Department of Education decision that said the small school district couldn’t use public funds to send students to a private school in Newport. Beaulieu enthusiastically endorsed Edelblut’s nomination — he had backed Croydon’s cause while in the New Hampshire House — but cautioned that she did not know enough about DeVos to pass judgment on her qualifications.

“I want to give them both the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

Edelblut has said his proposed vision as education commissioner would broaden opportunities for charter schools and home schooling, which Margaret Drye, who has home-schooled her nine children in Plainfield, applauded.

“There’s a lot more than just public education going on in the U.S,” Drye said. “Maybe we need some people who reflect that school choice has been a large rallying cry for people.”

Both DeVos and Edelblut had backgrounds that were “out of the box,” she said. “It’s not the status quo, but sometimes not the status quo can make good changes.”

But some of Edelblut’s supporters have bristled at the comparisons to the newly confirmed education secretary, arguing that Edelblut, who narrowly lost to Sununu in the GOP primary, has his own vision for New Hampshire schools.

“He actually wants to get in there and enhance public education,” said Executive Councilor Joe Kenney, R-Wakefield, adding that Edelblut’s business experience, like DeVos’ background as a philanthropist, would help serve that goal. “That’s the only comparison I can see.”

Edelblut’s nomination was tabled last week when Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, D-Concord, noted that Sununu needed to consult the state Board of Education before pushing his nominee forward. Pending the governor’s consultation with the board on Friday, the Executive Council, which has a Republican majority, is expected to vote along party lines for Edelblut’s confirmation on Wednesday.

In the meantime, opponents have been quick to compare Edelblut’s lack of experience in public education to DeVos’ own.

“They are strikingly similar, in our view,” said George Strout, the spokesman for the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union. New Hampshire teachers, he added, are “very concerned” about how Edelblut might affect education policy in the state.

Support for Edelblut on the Executive Council also is largely set, Strout said, and there is little likelihood of halting the confirmation. But “we will mostly use it as a rallying cry in a year and a half when we’re re-electing these councillors,” he said.

All four senators from New Hampshire and Vermont voted against DeVos’ confirmation on Tuesday, citing her lack of personal or professional interaction with public schools. Following the confirmation vote, Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., vowed to “fight any effort” from the new secretary that might weaken public schools.

“The secretary of education should have the broad backing of a range of communities, and it’s clear from the unprecedented nature of a tie-breaking Vice Presidential vote that Mrs. DeVos does not have the support she needs,” Hassan said in a statement. “All students, regardless of personal circumstances, have a right to a free and appropriate public education and I will do everything in my power to protect this fundamental right.”

Hassan had pressed DeVos during a heated confirmation hearing last month about whether she would safeguard educational access for students with disabilities. DeVos’ limited answer spurred the senator, whose son has cerebral palsy, to ask if she was aware that such protections were federal law.

“I may have confused it,” DeVos answered at the time, according to the Concord Monitor.

Darren Allen, the spokesman for the Vermont NEA, expressed hope that DeVos’ confirmation might have little impact in the long run on schools in the Upper Valley.

“Public education is fundamentally a local concern both in New Hampshire and here in Vermont,” he said, adding that residents are involved “much more so than the federal government. In that regard, we have great hope that in our neck of the woods they’ll continue to support great schools as they have.”

Michael Livingston, who heads The Sharon Academy, an independent school which includes many students from Vermont towns with school choice, echoed that sentiment.

“What I hope happens is we don’t find ourselves in divisive, unproductive conversations that are pitting public school and independent school folks against each other,” he said. “In the Upper Valley, I don’t think it’s going to tip some kind of scale one way or the other.”

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