Edelblut wrong for schools

I like Frank.

Although we do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, Commissioner of Education designee 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 one of the few Republican leaders 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 after.

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 New Hampshire House, he made one heck of a run for governor last year, 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 well-deserved next step in the eyes of his supporters.

But while the Department of Education may be right for Frank, is Frank right for the department and for the state?

Public schools advocates are uneasy. They point out that 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. They note his opposition to full-day kindergarten, which 70 percent of Granite Staters say they strongly favor, and his vote against a new law supporting students with dyslexia. They take issue with his vote to compel all state-funded facilities to allow guns on their premises even as Americans are strongly against guns in schools. And they question his belief in science itself, given his role on the board of a conservative Christian college that favors creationism over evolution. He has said 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, and commitment to, our state’s public schools.

But I recognize that elections have consequences and the governor is entitled to appoint whomever he chooses when vacancies arise – provided that person is 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).

Does this mean that anyone with a teaching background or advanced degrees in education will do for Commissioner of Education? Certainly not. Formal qualifications alone do not make an effective commissioner, and there is always some benefit to be gained by welcoming fresh perspectives and experiences from outside.

But it is the governor and Council’s solemn duty to appoint and approve a commissioner who meets the legal test and is qualified "by reason of education and experience."

Indeed, when it comes to the commissioner’s stated responsibilities of "represent[ing] the public interest in the administration of…instructional services to all public schools" and "promoting excellence in education and the provision of resources through state and federal programs for all students," New Hampshire would do well to have someone with more than a hint of education and experience in the field.

As strange winds blow up from Washington, one might well 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 basements flood, 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?

Frank is an educated and experienced man, as I have seen up close. I urge the governor and Executive Council to let him give his gifts in an area for which he is, well, educated and experienced.

Dan Weeks of Nashua is the former executive director of Open Democracy. He was the 2016 Democratic nominee for NH Executive Council in District 5.