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Local school boards will be concerned about the big changes in the new Manifest Educational Hardship bill

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House Education chair Rick Ladd’s proposal for change to the manifest educational hardship statute are now posted as HB 1492. It contains many concepts familiar from the proposals made repeatedly over the past eight months by the New Hampshire Department of Education. The bill needs much more analysis by school board members budget committee members and attorneys, but here are some initial observations.

The current statute makes separate provisions for MEH and best interest cases.  MEH cases are handled by the superintendent and approved by the school board if the superintendent recommends reassignment to another school. Parent can appeal the superintendent’s decision to the school board and appeal the school board’s decision to the State Board of Education (SBOE).  The statute does not define what a manifest educational hardship is.  That is left to the SBOE rule making process.  There is no limit on the number of MEH reassignments a district can make in one year, but  in practice the process has not been frequently used.

In an entirely separate provision (III), the statute provides for a “best interest” reassignment, based on the superintendent’s recommendation.  The school board’s decision is final.  It is not appealable to the SBOE.  There is a cap on reassignments of 1% per year for the district and 5 students from any single school.

HB 1492 leaves the section III best interest provisions largely unchanged, but in sections I and II combines the handling of MEH and best interest into one process.

The key impact of the bill is to make the parent solely responsible for determining whether a hardship or best interest issue exists.  Where the current statute says that if that parent “thinks” that the current school assignment “will result in a manifest educational hardship to the child,” a certain process will happen.  But the first sentence of HB 1492 now says,

Any person having custody of a child whose attendance at the school to which the child has been assigned has resulted in a manifest educational hardship or has been determined to be not in the best interest of the child may apply to the school board for relief

While the language is tangled, it appears to mean, “If the parent has determined that there is a manifest educational hardship or the school assignment is not the the best interest of the student…etc.”  In other words, it would no longer be the role of the superintendent and school board to determine whether these conditions exist.  The longstanding criteria for manifest educational hardship would be eliminated. That determination is deemed to have been made if the parent has made it.

But then the bill provides a list of additional people, including the parent, who can bring a case to the school board: “school district superintendent, principal, a parent or custodian, or a medical doctor or psychologist.”  It’s unclear whether the others listed are also granted the authority to determine that a manifest educational hardship or not in the best interest of the child condition exists and, if not, whether there’s a different process for them.

But if a case is brought to the school board, the board must  “consider and recommend a course of action for relief.”  The bill goes on to say,

“The school board may recommend reassignment or transfer to another classroom or placement within the school, to another public school or public academy within the school district, to a public school or public academy outside the school district, or propose another action that may offer relief.”

The bill seems to say that the school board may do anything it chooses but, however minimal, it must take some action if the parents have made their determination.  And if the school board does not agree with the parents’ request to transfer their children to a preferred teacher or preferred school, the school board’s decision is appealable to the SBOE, to become one of an undoubtedly high volume of similar appeals.  And if the SBOE disagreed with the classroom or school assignment or other school board action, it could apparently overrule to local board.

With its imprecise language and internal contradictions, HB 1492 looks like an early draft that will see numerous changes.  Nonetheless, it is clear that the intention is to implement the school choice proposals at the heart of current department of education policy.  The only thing missing is the addition of private schools as a reassignment option.  If that were added, the bill would have succeeded in creating essentially a universal school choice program paid for by local property taxes.

Note: We will continue to update this post as others read and provide feedback on HB 1492.

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