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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

An artless redefinition of adequate

CONCORD – It’s not every day you get a Grammy-nominated artist testifying against proposed legislation in the state capital. But when Goffstown singer-songwriter Judy Pancoast heard about a bill that would make music education optional in the state’s public schools, she wanted her voice to be heard.

Pancoast, nominated this year for her children’s album, told members of the House Education Committee on Tuesday that music was the only thing that saved her from a childhood filled with torment from other students because of her weight. Thanks to the support of a music teacher, she gained the confidence to sing a solo in the spring concert, sparking her career in music.

“To me, music was not just a core curriculum subject; it was the core curriculum subject,” Pancoast said.

Pancoast was one of dozens of education leaders, current and former teachers, and arts advocates who expressed fierce opposition to a local state representative’s proposal to strip subjects such as art, world languages and technology from the state’s definition of an adequate education.

About 150 people turned out for the Education Committee’s hearing on HB39, sponsored by Rep. Ralph Boehm, R-Litchfield. The crowd was so large that committee Chairman Rep. Michael Balboni had to move the hearing midway in, from a small meeting room in the Legislative Office Building to Representatives Hall in the Statehouse. Before it was moved to the larger room, people were sitting on the floor and a long line of those hoping to get in wrapped through the hallway.

The bill, filed earlier this month, would strike arts, world languages, health, technology education and information and communication technologies from the list of subjects defined as an adequate education by the state. That would leave English language arts, math, science, social studies and physical education as the only state-mandated subjects. The state established the current definition of an adequate education in 2008.

While recognizing the value of the subjects he proposes to remove, Boehm, vice chairman of the Education Committee, said the total cost goes beyond what the state is providing in funding. Keeping them in the definition would continue to force unfunded mandates upon local school districts, he said.

“The state pays $3,430 or so per student for a so-called adequate education. But we all know that the school districts’ cost per student is more than $10,000,” Boehm said. “It looks like this was another downshifting from the state.”

Boehm said his legislation intends to be more realistic about what the state is actually paying. If local taxpayers are going to pick up the tab for additional subjects, they should get to decide what is taught, he said.

In a conference call Tuesday, House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli blasted Boehm’s proposal. She argued an education without critical subjects such as art and world languages is anything but adequate. Removing them would downshift millions of dollars to local taxpayers and would undoubtedly send the education debate back to court, she said.

“This irresponsible legislation would tear at the fabric of what makes our education system the envy of other states in the nation,” Norelli said. “If these subject matters are not part of an adequate education, then the next generation and our generation will suffer greatly.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, speakers railed against the proposal, arguing that lifting the requirement to teach critical subjects would give local school boards the opportunity to remove them from the curriculum, putting students in those communities at a disadvantage. Boehm stayed to listen for part of the testimony, smiling while opponents spoke.

Representatives from many of the state’s education associations and organizations spoke out against the bill. Mark Joyce, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, said while it’s clear the cost of teaching all subjects included in the definition exceeds the state’s contribution, simply eliminating them does not solve the problem.

“While we respect the notion of resisting unfunded mandates, we support the continued inclusion of art, music, technology and world languages as essential basics that compose the foundation of adequacy,” Joyce said.

Dean Mitchner, director of governmental affairs for the New Hampshire School Boards Association, also testified against the bill, as did Rick Trombley, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire National Education Association. Trombley pointed out that Republican leadership has recognized arts as an essential part of an education.

“The education of our future professionals begins somewhere, and that’s in the classroom,” Trombley said. “We run a tragic risk if the only thing we understand is the cost of some things, but the value of nothing.”

Maryanne Irish, president of the New Hampshire Music Educators Association, said while the legislation doesn’t prohibit schools from teaching the arts, removing them from the list of mandated subjects “would make the reduction of arts an easy and quick fix” for school boards looking for places to cut back.

“It makes education the scapegoat for a larger financial problem,” Irish said. “It is a wrong and disproportionate response.”

Applause broke out several times after speakers argued against the bill. Several times at the hearing, Balboni had to ask the audience to hold its applause.

Boehm’s bill would also require the Legislature to approve the state’s adoption of the Common Core Standards. Last year, the state Board of Education approved adopting the set of national standards in principle, but Boehm argues the board did not have the authority. Full implementation of the new standards is not expected for several years.

Kathleen Murphy, director of the division of instruction for the state Department of Education, said adopting the new standards would be in the best interest of New Hampshire students and teachers. Murphy said the department does not have a position about Boehm’s proposal on subjects included in an adequate education.

No action was taken by the committee Tuesday. Because of the financial implications about state funding of adequate education, the House needs an initial vote on the legislation by Feb. 17. That would mean the committee needs its recommendation by Feb. 10 at the latest. It would also need Senate approval, as well as the support of Gov. John Lynch.

Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.