EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 9, 2014

Education board confirmation draws criticism

Charter school advocates voice concerns

By Doug Ireland
direland@eagletribune.com

---- — The confirmation of William Duncan to the state Board of Education yesterday is drawing criticism from charter school advocates and supporters of school choice.

They are concerned the vocal activist would do more to hurt education than advance it as charter schools and other alternative programs try to thrive in the state.

Duncan, a retired businessman from New Castle, was confirmed to a four-year term by the Governor’s Executive Council following his controversial nomination by Gov. Maggie Hassan.

The nomination and confirmation immediately brought a negative reaction from charter school supporters and backers of New Hampshire’s education tax credit law.

But Duncan, 70, said yesterday he’s ready to get down to business. He could not attend the confirmation hearing because he was out of state awaiting the birth of a grandchild.

“I am looking forward to working with the board and I’m looking forward to working with the charter school folks,” he said.

Charter school officials said they are afraid Duncan won’t respect the needs of their schools as another form of public education.

“The state Board of Education is a place for diverse opinions, but it is unreasonable to appoint someone who exhibits such a clear bias to a body meant to represent all New Hampshire students,” said Matt Southerton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Innovative Schools.

There are 18 charter schools in New Hampshire, with four more to open this fall. The new schools include Granite State Arts Academy in Derry and The Founders Academy in Manchester.

Representatives from both schools were critical of Duncan’s selection.

“It’s going to be harder for us to do what we need to do,” Granite State Arts Academy spokeswoman Wendie Leweck said. “Bill Duncan is not an ally of charter schools.”

Families were encouraged to contact their local leaders to voice opposition to Duncan’s nomination, she said.

“I was quite surprised,” Leweck said of the nomination. “(Hassan) has always said she is an advocate of charter schools.”

Duncan said he supports charter schools as a complement to the traditional public school system and has been impressed with the ones he’s visited.

Thomas Frischknecht, co-founder of The Founders Academy and also the Academy for Science and Design in Nashua, said he was “disappointed” with the nomination.

But Frischknecht said he will reach out to Duncan.

“I think it brings an imbalance to a board already imbalanced,” he said. “I would have been more pleased if they chose someone with the needs of charter schools in mind.”

Christine Storniolo, board chairman for The Birches Academy of Academics & Art in Salem, said charter school officials need to move forward and work with Duncan.

“We welcome Mr. Duncan because we know he has a history of educational reform,” she said.

It’s Duncan’s outspoken views that have brought him many critics.

Duncan, the founder of Defending New Hampshire Public Education, is adamantly opposed to the education tax law and has challenged it in the state Supreme Court. That case is still pending.

The law offers credits to businesses and organizations that donate money for children to attend private schools. Duncan claims money collected from taxpayers should only be used to fund public education.

“I think that the law needs to be struck down,” he said. “We have no need for vouchers in New Hampshire.”

Duncan claims the tax credit program mostly benefits families who can already afford to send their children to private schools.

His confirmation yesterday drew harsh criticism from state Republican Committee Chairman Jennifer Horn, who issued a statement.

“Bill Duncan is the wrong person for this important position,” Horn said, “because he is a radical anti-school choice advocate who has fought tirelessly to limit education opportunities for the needy children.”

Hassan praised Duncan’s confirmation as did state Board of Education Chairman Thomas Raffio, who said the software company founder’s business experience and knowledge of educational issues would be an asset to the board.

Hassan lauded Duncan for those qualities as well.

“Bill Duncan is a veteran and an accomplished businessman who understands the importance of a strong public education system for New Hampshire’s people and economy,” she said in a statement. “He knows that the people of our state value our strong public schools, and he has consistently fought to improve our education system in order to better prepare our students for good jobs and successful careers.