Over the past two years, Democrats at the New Hampshire State House have picked a fight with Republican Gov. Chris Sununu on the issue of education. On Tuesday, they lost that fight badly.
As a result, the 2021 legislative session is likely to see major shifts in education policy.
Following the 2018 midterms, Democrats controlled everything in Concord except the Governor’s Office, and they used their majorities to thwart Sununu’s education reform agenda.
In the Executive Council, Concord Democrat Andru Volinsky led the charge in opposition to Sununu’s nominee to the State Board of Education, Ryan Terrell. Volinsky’s racially charged language prompted a backlash from local chapters of the NAACP and Black Lives Matter.
Volinsky even convinced fellow Democrats Mike Cryans and Debora Pignatelli to block a scheduled pay raise for Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a normally routine approval for the Council.
Both Cryans and Pignatelli lost their seats to Republicans on Tuesday and the Executive Council will have a 4-1 GOP majority. Candidates like Terrell will be embraced, not blocked.
In the Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes was the leading Democratic critic of the Sununu Administration. Sitting on the powerful Joint Fiscal Committee, Feltes convinced his party to reject the first wave of a $46 million federal grant aimed at expanding public charter school options in New Hampshire.
Edelblut has brought the item back to the committee several times over the past year, only to see it shot down along party lines.
When the GOP holds the House and Senate, “I will absolutely make sure that when that item comes before the Fiscal Committee, it will get approval,” Republican House Leader — and potential Speaker — Rep. Dick Hinch (R-Merrimack) told NHJournal. “And you can take that to the bank.”
In 2017, the Republican-controlled legislature tasked the state Department of Education to craft an alternative means for New Hampshire students to earn credit toward graduation outside the classroom. Edelblut came back last year with Learn Everywhere.
Democrats on the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules argued that the program went too far in allowing students to take classes without permission from local education officials, and lodged an official objection.
District 9 State Sen. Jeanie Dietsch went further, arguing that some parents were incapable of making good educational decisions for their children. “This idea of parental choice, that’s great if the parent is well-educated,” Dietsch said during a legislative hearing in June.
Dietsch was one of four Democratic incumbents to fall on Tuesday, flipping the Senate from 14-10 for Democrats to 14-10 for the GOP.
Democrats made these fights over education policy part of their 2020 campaign. Volinsky and Feltes both emphasized their desire to replace Edelblut when his term expires next year, and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot echoed opposition to public charter schools.
Feltes, the eventual Democratic nominee for governor, tried to turn the election into a referendum on Sununu’s school policy, in particular his decision to allow local school districts to decide on their own COVID-19 policy.
New Hampshire voters sided with Sununu in record numbers.
Sununu crushed Feltes at the polls by a nearly two-to-one margin, becoming the first New Hampshire candidate for any office to collect more than 500,000 votes. Sununu even carried heavily-Democratic areas such as Concord and Keene.
Heading into 2021, Sununu has a strong mandate to exact the education reforms that Democrats have blocked for the past two years. Despite his big lead, Sununu stumped hard across the Granite State on behalf of his fellow Republicans. He pointedly asked voters to send him political allies to enact his agenda, including on education reform. And voters agreed.
Now Republicans are going to use this vote of confidence to take bold steps. “I think we have to make sure that we immediately recognize the need for school choice, that the money should follow the student,” Hinch said.
And look for Sununu and the legislature to work with schools and parents who want to keep kids in class to find ways to do so while minimizing risk.
It appears the upcoming legislative session is going to be a reminder that, on education policy in particular, elections have consequences.