Education commissioner confirmation hearing turns contentious
CONCORD – A confirmation hearing for Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s education commissioner nominee turned contentious, with the nominee facing sharp questioning from the two Democratic members of the Executive Council.
In his opening statement, businessman and former state Rep. Frank Edelblut told the five council members “at the conclusion of this hearing it is my hope that you will have a sense of my passion for children and education and be able to support my nomination.”
Edelblut, who narrowly lost to Sununu in last summer’s GOP gubernatorial primary, is a strong supporter of school choice, along with the governor.
Trying to allay the fears of critics, who say school choice will weaken public schools by diverting crucial funding, Edelblut said “some have said and likely will say in their testimony here today that I will push for school choice and destroy public education. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to see public education work well for all students.”
But he added that “we need to move beyond the idea that choice in education is a zero sum game. That success of a public charter school is somehow a loss for a standard public school.”
And he said that if confirmed, “I will serve all of the educational needs of the state: public, private, home education. I get that people are nervous. A shift in leadership is always difficult.”
The conservative Republican from Wilton, who along with his wife home-schooled all seven of his children, repeatedly vowed not to “legislate” if confirmed.
“This is a non-partisan position. This is about making sure that our kids get the education they deserve. That will be my 100% focus,” he added.
The Edelblut nomination is the first major one by the new governor, and the hearing drew scores of supporters and opponents of the nominee, with the crowd filling the council chambers, the adjacent waiting room, and overflowing to the hallway outside.
Early in the hearing, a bunch of people in the audience grew frustrated with the lack of microphones, repeatedly yelling “people can’t hear. We want to hear.”
Volinsky ‘examines’ Edelblut
Minutes later, Edelblut faced what appeared to be a cross-examination by Democratic councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord. The new councilor and veteran attorney, who’s an accomplished litigator and longtime supporter of public education and who was the lead lawyer in the landmark Claremont school funding case from the 1990’s, quickly questioned Edelblut’s qualifications for the job.
“Will you address some of the concerns that a number of people have….I have gotten lots of calls….that you are qualified to be commissioner,” asked Volinsky.
The councilor pointed out that “every one of your predecessors for the last 40 years under Republicans and Democrats have had substantial experience in academic preparation,” adding that “none of them were political candidates. None of them operated in the kind of political world that you operated in.”
Volinsky then asked “do you agree not to run for office in 2020, understanding that you would ordinarily start that political work in 2019, halfway through your term.”
Edelblut never directly answered the question.
Volinsky then produced a chart and ticked through a listed positions that Edelblut has not served, highlighting that the nominee doesn’t have a degree in education or has every held a job in public education.
“You have never taught as a public school teacher,” Volinsky stated.
“I have taught as a home school teacher,” Edelblut answered.
“Do you equate being a home school teacher with being a teacher in a public school?” Volinsky asked.
“I do not,” Edelblut answered.
Volinsky then asked if Edelblut had ever been elected to a school board or served as a PTA member. The nominee answered no to both questions.
Volinsky also focused on Edelblut’s ties to Patrick Henry College, spotlighting the school’s website, which says all of its trustees, faculty members and administrators must agree with the view that humans and other organisms came from God’s intervention and not as a result of evolution.
Edelblut said he didn’t subscribe to the college’s statements, but added that “I think there are multiple themes of the origin of humanity.”
The nominee then pointed out that he wouldn’t have jurisdiction as education commissioner over the science curriculum, adding that such decisions would be handled by the state board of education and the local school boards.
“If you as commissioner had a local school board that insisted on teaching creationism on par with evolution in their life sciences curriculum, you wouldn’t have any concern about that?” asked Volinsky.
“Whether or not I would have concern is irrelevant. I would not have jurisdiction over that,” answered Edelblut.
After lengthy questioning by Volinsky, Republican councilor Russell Prescott of Kingston asked “I wanted to know if we’re going to have enough time for the rest of the people to ask questions. Maybe we could speed up the questions from the councilor.”
Minutes later, as Volinsky continued his questioning, GOP councilor David Wheeler of Milford, who was chairing the hearing, said “councilor I ask that you defer to councilor Prescott and to the public and then if time allows we’ll let you get back to Mr. Edelblut.“
“Are you asking me to defer?” asked Volinsky.
After Wheeler responded “yes,” Volinsky shot back, saying “I decline to do that,” which precipitated oohs and cheers from the audience.
Later, Democratic councilor Chris Pappas of Manchester questioned Edelblut about his opposition to the Common Core educational standards, and where he stood on gay conversion therapy and funding for full day kindergarten.
The Executive Council meets again on Wednesday and is likely to vote on the Edelblut nomination. With the three Republicans on the council telling NH1 News they are likely to support Edeblut, is confirmation appears secure.
If confirmed, Edelblut will succeed Virginia Barry, who served since 2009 as commissioner.