Summit in New Hampshire Shines Spotlight on Education

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Educators, parents, legislators, and business leaders in New Hampshire gathered last week to talk about education issues in the Granite State. Gov. Jeanne Shaheen plans to spend the next several weeks compiling those opinions into a state agenda for schools.

Almost 500 people attended the one-day summit, filling a hotel and conference center in Bedford to capacity.

"Our ultimate goal is to have the best schools possible; to have the best-prepared workforce in the world," Ms. Shaheen, a Democrat, said when she addressed the group in the morning.

Gov. Jeanne Shaheen

Education and business groups throughout the state were invited to send representatives. Members of the public filled out the remainder of the crowd.

The Oct. 15 event drew praise from many of those who attended.

"I was real impressed with the candor of the participants within our group," said Sue Ruggeri, a high school special education teacher from Merrimack.

"You don't want a summit where people are just 'yessing' each other to death," she added.

Sessions were held on seven topics: early-childhood intervention, safe and orderly schools, classroom technology, the use of student assessments to improve schools, school-to-work programs, economic development, and teacher preparation.

Each participant was able to sign up for two sessions, which broke up into discussion groups charged with identifying goals and making recommendations.

No 'Quick Fix'

One of the most common themes from parents and educators was a perceived need for more leadership from state officials.

"I hope the governor heard loud and clear that we don't want more control over the assessment system, but we want more information," said Barbara Moseley of Hooksett, who serves on the state PTA's board of directors.

Much of the discussion also focused on the need to improve communication between schools and their communities.

"This cannot be a quick fix," said John Crosier, the president of the 325-member Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

He suggested that executives and school principals begin trading places for a day to gain more understanding about one another's positions.

Some people, however, said that several important issues were conveniently left off the agenda, such as school choice, charter schools, and funding for education.

"I've found that the governor has done a terrific job in minimizing expectations and lowering the goals," said Andru Volinsky, a Concord lawyer who represents a coalition of poor New Hampshire districts that have sued the state over the issue of school finance equity.

For example, he said, Ms. Shaheen noted in her remarks that 112 of the state's 154 districts now offer public kindergarten. In 1996, the legislature for the first time passed a bill that provided state money for kindergarten programs. ("N.H. Lawmakers Back First-Ever State Aid for Kindergarten," June 12, 1996.)

"There shouldn't be a single district without kindergarten," Mr. Volinsky argued. "She has a very modest approach, especially for someone who bills herself as the education governor."

The topic of resources was not listed separately on the agenda for two reasons, said Michael McCluskey, a retired president and chief executive officer of the regional telephone company NYNEX Corp., now Bell Atlantic, who served as the chairman of the summit.

Funding Matters

First, the state budget for fiscal 1998 and 1999 has already been passed. Second, Mr. McCluskey said, the governor doesn't want to "step on the toes" of school districts, which get most of their funding from local property taxes.

"We can bring the ideas," Mr. McCluskey said, "but we can't say, 'You have to do this or that.'"

No state money was used for the summit.

Mr. McCluskey raised roughly $100,000 from a variety of sponsors, including Bell Atlantic, the cable-television company Media One, and Tyco International, a manufacturing business with corporate offices in New Hampshire. Each participant also paid $25.

Recommendations produced by the summit may be the basis for legislative proposals, but that was not the reason to hold it, Mr. McCluskey said.

Once the report is completed in the next several weeks, Gov. Shaheen plans to hold a series of town hall meetings around the state to inform people about her long-range plan for education.

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