Editor’s Note: This story was first published on New Hampshire Bulletin.
Around 100 families attended a fair to promote nontraditional educational opportunities for students Wednesday, organizers said. The event was hosted by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and featured in an appearance by a representative from the New Hampshire Department of Education.
Held at the Executive Court in Manchester, an indoor event space, the “Education Freedom Fair” included vendors representing private schools, charter schools, home-school support programs and organizations hosting extracurricular “Learn Everywhere” programs.
Americans for Prosperity officials said the event was designed to let curious parents know of different programs available as an alternative to public school, including the state’s education freedom account program, which allows state funds to go to low-income families for nonpublic school education-related expenses.
“I think throughout COVID, parents kind of for the first time saw that there are different ways that their kids can learn, because they went from being in-person to doing online,” said Sarah Scott, director of education policy at Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire and the event’s organizer. “It worked great for some kids (and) went terribly for others. And it just kind of made them think: ‘There are different ways of doing this; I wonder what the options are that are out there.’ ”
The Department of Education communications administrator, Kim Houghton, attended the event to promote the “603 Moment” campaign, a social media initiative that seeks to inspire families to find moments to reconnect and de-stress and to share those moments on social media, she told New Hampshire Bulletin. Houghton also used the event to highlight Waterford Upstart, a national software program that the department is offering to families to prepare their children for kindergarten, paid for with federal funds.
One teacher’s union has criticized the Department of Education’s involvement in the event, arguing that it signaled a preference by Commissioner Frank Edelblut for public school alternatives.
“(Americans for Prosperity) is a partisan political group and for the Department of Education to promote and attend an event sponsored by them is wrong,” said Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Hampshire, in a statement. “It also continues a disturbing pattern of the Commissioner of Education supporting so-called ‘school choice’ while ignoring our neighborhood public schools.”
Howes added: “90% of New Hampshire students attend public schools, but the Commissioner spends nearly 100% of his time criticizing and attacking our neighborhood public schools rather than recognizing what is good in them and working to make improvements on a strong foundation they provide.” .”
But Edelblut said the department saw the event purely as an opportunity to promote its own programs.
“The New Hampshire Department of Education was invited to attend Wednesday’s Education Fair and welcomed the opportunity to be present and support all students on their paths to success,” he said in a statement Thursday. “…We will continue to go to great lengths to support all students and families on their educational journeys.”
The event highlights an ongoing shift in state educational policy toward “school choice” initiatives, championed by Republicans and conservatives.
New Hampshire Republicans have passed a number of programs in recent years creating new alternatives to public education in the state. In 2021, lawmakers approved federal funds to provide seed money to help double the state’s roster of charter schools. That year, the state also passed a rule requiring that individual school districts accept credits earned by students through “Learn Everywhere” extracurricular programs, provided that the State Board of Education has approved those programs. And in the 2021-2022 budget, the state passed the education freedom account program, which saw a higher-than-expected take-up in its first year, costing the state about $8 million.
Edelblut has said the additional programs will allow lower-income parents and students to explore educational opportunities if their public school is not a good fit for them.
Democrats have criticized the programs for diverting attention and resources from neighborhood public schools, and have argued that the education freedom account program is too costly to the state’s education trust fund.