School Reform Vetoed in New Hampshire

Published October 1, 1997

A far-reaching school reform bill, which passed both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature after what Republican State Senator James M. Rubens called “Herculean efforts,” was vetoed in June by Democratic Governor Jeanne Shaheen, who said the bill “does not advance any essential reform efforts” but rather “duplicates” and “diverts” other efforts. The bill would have established “world-class” standards for high school students and provided for improved disciplinary measures, teacher testing, and incentives for year-round schooling.

“This [veto] makes it clear who really supports school reform,” said Rubens, the bill’s sponsor. “Everyone talks about improving schools, but now we know some of that talk is just rhetoric.”

Rubens’ SB-202 gave students the right to an orderly, disciplined learning environment and required a high school exit examination benchmarked to the highest-performing schools in the world. Another provision, designed to cut school building costs, provided incentives for year- round schooling.

But it was two provisions of the bill affecting teachers that drew strong opposition from the teachers’ union, the New Hampshire affiliate of the National Education Association. One of the contested provisions would have eliminated teacher tenure; the other required all teachers to pass competency tests for initial certification and subsequent recertification. Although the tenure provision was removed from the bill as it passed through the House and Senate, the other reform provisions–including the teacher testing requirement–remained. Professional educators opposed the final bill, with the teachers’ union calling the testing provision “insulting” to its members.

The bill was strongly supported by the general public, the New Hampshire School Boards Association, and the National Federation of Independent Business. Nevertheless, Shaheen vetoed the bill, stating that “reform efforts must be developed and implemented cooperatively” to be successful, “supported by local educators, policy makers, business leaders, parents, and by the legislative and executive branches.”

“It’s not possible to get agreement from all parties unless you dilute reform so much that it becomes worthless,” counters Rubens. “You can’t get consensus here–the children must take precedence over the teachers’ unions.”

An undeterred Rubens promises to be back with the same bill next year, adding that the veto has energized many lawmakers who were surprised and enthused to see that a school reform bill could actually be passed. The experience, he said, has “expanded their sense of the possible.”

Rubens chairs the Senate Education Committee. His bill to allow charter schools in New Hampshire passed in 1995, his first year in office.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].