In the NH school funding trial, Edelblut declines to define an ‘adequate’ education

This article was originally produced by the NH Business Review. NHPR is republishing it in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative. The piece below has been lightly edited.

New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, who along with Gov. Chris Sununu is a named defendant in the case, took the witness stand in Rockingham County Superior Court Tuesday to open the second week of the trial pitting the ConVal School District and 10 other districts against the state.

In the suit, ConVal charges the state has failed to meet its obligation to provide and fund a constitutionally adequate education for every child – an obligation made plain by the New Hampshire Supreme Court in its Claremont rulings of 1993 and 1997.

At the time, the justices ruled the state constitution obliges the state to provide and pay for the adequate education of every child, with taxes that are equal in valuation and uniform in rate throughout the state.

Testifying Tuesday, Edelblut repeatedly said that the responsibility and authority to define the content and cost of a constitutionally adequate education was vested in the Legislature. The role of the education department, he said, was limited to implementing statutes enacted by the Legislature.

However, Judge David Ruoff intervened to question Edelblut’s characterization of his responsibilities.

“I’m still trying to process if the graduation requirements are the same as a constitutionally adequate education,” Ruoff said. “I imagine they’re not. I’m trying to find out where that line is.”

Ruoff added, “I imagine the Legislature wanted you to figure it out.”

Legislature’s preview?

Edelblut was appointed commissioner in February 2017, nominated by Sununu after losing the gubernatorial primary to Sununu by less than 900 votes.

As a CPA, his professional experience was limited to business and finance. Unlike his predecessors, Edelblut has never worked in a school as either a teacher, principal, superintendent or administrator. Nor has he served on a school board or belonged to a parent-teacher association. While he was a product of public schools, his seven children were all home-schooled.

Despite his lack of experience with public education, Edelblut holds strong views on both the philosophy and provision of education. His primary educational affiliation has been with Patrick Henry College of Purcellville, Virginia, a self-described “conservative Christian college,” which exists for “Christ and Liberty.”

As commissioner, Edelblut has promoted alternatives to conventional public schools, most notably through the Education Freedom Account program, which entitles qualified students to grants, funded by taxpayer dollars, to defray tuition costs of private and parochial schools.

Likewise, he has nurtured the Learn Everywhere Program, which allows anyone who wishes to offer courses with the approval of the state Board of Education, as well as a work-based learning program.

While Edelblut has used his position and influence with the governor and Legislature to further these and other educational policies, he has given less attention to addressing the challenges of public schools, where easily the largest share of students are enrolled.

When the Legislature invested $500,000 in a commission to address the funding of public schools, Edelblut declined several invitations to participate, and he has not taken part in the debate over either the definition or the cost of an adequate education.

At trial, Edelblut’s testimony echoed the tone of his deposition.

He repeatedly insisted that the responsibility of his department is to implement, not question, inform or influence, the will of the Legislature. This mirrors the primary defense mounted by the state, which has the authority to define the components and determine the cost of a constitutionally adequate education, namely the exclusive preserve and prerogative of the Legislature.

During a pre-trial deposition, attorney Michael Tierney, representing ConVal, asked Edelblut if the constitution required the state to fund an adequate education. After Edelblut demurred, Tierney was pressed.

“I am not adjudicating that one way or another,” Edelblut repeated.

“Do you have any opinions?” Tierney asked.

“It is an unsettled matter,” said Edelblut, adding “whether or not that decision was rightly decided.”

Asked about the components and costs of an adequate education. Edelblut replied, “the amount of funds that are provided to the district public school is determined by the Legislature and the components of that are factors that the Legislature has weighed in determining what that amount is, so the components of that are really determined – I am not sure what the components are that the Legislature considers when they come up with that number.”

When Tierney asked, “What does an adequate education mean?” Edelblut answered, “What is enumerated in the statute.”

Asked if the definition satisfied the Constitution, he revised, “I am not in a position to be able to advocate that. So I don’t have responsibility for determining what an adequate education is,” he continued. “Again, the Legislature makes that determination, and we implement what the Legislature determines.”

Edelblut said he had not undertaken an analysis to determine if any school district could provide a constitutionally adequate education with the funding the state provides and that he was unaware of any such analysis undertaken by his department.

Edelblut is expected to continue his testimony later in the trial.

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