Q&A with Public education advocate Bill Duncan

Bill Duncan didn't plan on becoming a citizen activist. The former software entrepreneur and U.S. Naval Academy graduate had looked forward to spending a lot of retirement time on a few pursuits, including more time practicing his fiddle playing.

Duncan, a New Castle resident, is also the first to admit he's not an expert in public education but last year he became at first concerned and then alarmed at the rhetoric and legislative efforts in Concord to proceed on a path of what he believes is an anti-public education agenda.

"This Legislature has assaulted public education like no one has done before," Duncan said. "They are pushing an anti-government, privatization ideology that I don't believe voters supported in 2010. Until you take a close look at it, I know a lot of people who didn't think it could happen."

Last fall, he formed the organization Defending New Hampshire Public Education. Duncan believes that a strong public education system is a crucial component for sustained economic development in the state and necessary for sustaining democracy.

In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in January, Duncan spoke out against a voucher bill.

"The whole idea of using public funds to induce families to take their children out of the public schools and put them in private, mostly religious, schools just doesn't make sense," he said.

Q. Why did you start Defending New Hampshire Public Education?

A. I formed it when I saw the flood of anti-public education legislation coming out of the Legislature, starting with bills like HB 340 — property tax abatements for parents who keep their kids out of the public schools — in the 2011 session. It didn't pass, but 114 Republicans voted for it and it represented an attitude.

Also, in 2011, the Legislature cut $140 million out of the calculation of state aid. They delayed the full impact through complex maneuvers, but it represented a commitment to reducing state aid to education.

The voucher plan was the last straw. It's called an "education tax credit," implemented in HB 1607 and SB 372, and its purpose is to privatize public education. When I saw that taking shape, I just thought something had to be done. So I made a website and started emailing people, not knowing what, if anything, would come of it. It turned out a lot of people were alarmed and responded.

Q. What do you see driving this effort?

A. I see it as a deeply virulent, anti-government sentiment. The anti-public schools attitude comes from that and it's not just in New Hampshire. It has been going on since the 1950s, when Milton Friedman launched the first major attack on public education, but it has really picked up momentum in the past few years when Republican supermajorities took control in Concord and in many other states. This is a national movement to privatize public education.

Q. How many bills is DNHPE keeping track of?

A. In this session alone, in addition to the two anti-public education constitutional amendments, there are 30 anti-public education bills. Seven of them reduce education funding, reducing state aid by $100 million, eliminating $70 million in federal aid by opting out of No Child Left Behind, and redirecting open-ended amounts of public money to private and religious schools in the voucher plan.

Another six bills attack compulsory attendance in various ways, such as repealing the 180-day school year, making it difficult to bring a truant back to school, or authorizing parents to keep children out of any school that adopts the International Baccalaureate curriculum or out of classes to which they have a conscientious objection. There are also eight bills that attempt to directly control curriculum and move direct authority over curriculum to the Legislature.

Many of these bills will be defeated, but the amendments and the voucher plan continue to have the potential to do serious damage.

Q. What bill in particular is indicative of this trend?

A. CACR 12 captures the essence of the current Legislature. First, it allocates all authority to the Legislature, a recurring theme in all areas in this Legislature. Then it removes all state obligations to support public education.

The debate between the House and Senate on this is the word "responsibility." Senate supporters realize that, as a practical matter, the amendment eliminates any state obligation to fund education. The House is concerned that there might be some sliver of remaining obligation if the word "responsibility" is there. But the issue is complex and people are tired of it. So many editorial writers and citizens hope the amendment would "put the issue behind us." In reality, it would subject public education funding to a never-ending political debate and uncertain budgets.

Q. From a business/economic perspective, why is public education vital?

A. New Hampshire's great public education system is the state's most prized asset. People move here because of it. It enhances real estate values. Our workforce is a product of our system of education, right up through the community colleges and the university. That's a much more important factor than the business profits tax in whether businesses start or locate here.

The effort to undermine public education based on political opposition to "government-run schools" is a fundamental threat to New Hampshire's economic vitality, but this philosophical opposition to public education does not represent the overwhelming majority of voters.

Q. Why doesn't the public educational establishment defend itself?

A. Teachers, superintendents and school boards don't speak up because they feel that as public employees, they should not lobby on issues like this that directly affect them. The public schools need defending by organizations such as DNHPE because we are not part of that establishment.


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