While the new commissioner of education is many fine things, he is not educated or experienced in the field
I like Frank.
Although we do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and I have never shied away from candid conversations about the challenges facing our state.
When I ran Open Democracy and the NH Rebellion, Frank was someone we could count on to join our search for solutions to the corruption of big money in politics. When Frank and I were on the campaign trail in 2016, we crossed paths often and shook hands. We were citizens of New Hampshire first and members of opposing political parties second.
I’ve always known Frank to be an accomplished businessman, a devoted husband and father, a man of integrity and faith. After a single term in the NH House, he ran a spirited campaign for governor and few people expect him to stop there. His appointment by Gov. Chris Sununu to Commissioner of Education, subject to Executive Council approval, is a natural next step in the eyes of his supporters.
But while the Department of Education may be right for Frank, I’m not sure Frank is right for the department and the state.
For anyone with a child in public school, there are reasons to be uneasy. Frank has called for diverting taxpayer money away from public education to private and religious schools, a plan that ranks at the bottom of a long list of interventions Americans support for improving education, at 2 percent. He opposed full-day kindergarten, which 70 percent of Granite Staters say they strongly favor, and voted against a new law supporting public school students with dyslexia. He voted to compel all state-funded facilities to allow guns on their premises even as Americans are strongly against guns in schools. And when asked whether he would place creationism on the same level with the scientific theory of evolution, he maintained his personal views are irrelevant to the role of commissioner of education.
As a father of two young children and a proud product of New Hampshire public schools, I share many of these concerns. As a onetime substitute teacher and AmeriCorps volunteer in high-poverty public schools, I am particularly anxious to see a commissioner with a deep understanding of public education in low-income communities, where parents often have the least ability to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools.
But I recognize that elections have consequences and the governor is entitled to appoint whomever he chooses when vacancies arise – provided his appointees are highly qualified for the job. And there’s the rub.
While Frank is many fine things, he is not educated or experienced in education, as state law requires of a commissioner. His degrees in business and theology are unrelated to the field. He has never worked in a school, served on a school board, managed a school budget or the like. He has never had a child in public school, where the vast majority of New Hampshire’s roughly 200,000 school-age children get their education (his kids are among the 2.7 percent of Granite Staters who are homeschooled).
Or course, formal qualifications alone do not make an effective commissioner, and there is always a certain benefit to be gained by welcoming fresh perspectives from outside. But it is the Governor and Council’s solemn duty to appoint and approve a commissioner who meets the statutory test and is qualified “by reason of education and experience.”
As strange winds blow up from Washington, one might wonder if we are entering a brave new world of “anti-government” governments and false “facts.” But Americans still care about qualifications in their private lives. We still turn to dentists, not dog whisperers, to do our teeth. We still prefer to have accountants file our taxes and athletes throw the football on TV, not the other way around. When the basement floods, we still call the plumber and not our poet friend. If experts have a place in private life, surely they belong in positions of public influence as well.
Dan Weeks of Nashua is former executive director of Open Democracy and was the 2016 Democratic nominee for Executive Council in District 5.