Wednesday, September 13, 2023

NH: What Ever Happened To Croydon's School Budget Slasher?

You may remember Jody Underwood and Croydon, New Hampshire. It's a story worth revisiting, because it tells us what may be down the road for some of the most extreme MAGA education policies.

The tiny town of Croydon was the scene of more than one big dustup over education. A few years ago it was the scene of a move to push school choice in the state. Underwood and Angi Beaulieu were among the advocates who pushed for a voucher system which allowed students from tiny towns like Croydon to have tuition paid to a school of their choice. In fact, the vouchers-for-some bill was called the Croydon Bill, and Governor Chris Sununu came to Croydon to sign it in 2017.

This was a true voucher program. Not a "here's a couple thousand bucks, good luck finding a place to get your kid an education" program, but a mechanism by which local taxpayers footed the full bill for an education at any public or private school they could get into (that included the school in nearby Claremont, where I started out life). It was not cheap; the taxpayers in the 800 person town paid $1.7 million for a local K-4 school and vouchers for the older students (80 students in all); it's more than they spend to run the town. 

Then, in early 2022, at a low-attendance annual town meeting, Jody Underwood, the school board chair, recognized her husband Ian from the floor, and he moved to cut the budget to $800K. The motion passed, and suddenly tiny Croydon was up in arms.

The Underwoods are part of the Free State Project, founded in 2001 with the intent of moving 20,000 Libertarians to New Hampshire with the hope that they might have an outsized influence on the small-population, liberty-loving state. Free Staters have been successful in landing elected offices in New Hampshire, even at the state level (most elected offices in the state are unpaid). Granite State Matters just released a paper about the FSP's progress dismantling democracy in New Hampshire. 

The Underwoods came to Croydon in 2007. Before moving, Jody had worked for the Educational Testing Service, and before that a researcher for NASA and Carnegie Mellon University. Her LinkedIn profile lists her as the Lead Learning Scientist for Intelligent Automation, Inc--that's Blue Halo, a company that works in the defense industry sector, and she has some legit credits in the AI world way before it was cool. Ian was a "planetary scientist and artificial intelligence researcher for NASA," a certified hypnotherapist, a "fourth generation wing chun sifu," as well as director of the Ask Dr. Math program. 

The Underwoods were ahead of the far right privatization movement. Asked how students were supposed to get into schools with $10K, Ian Underwood suggested that microschools like Prenda would be good enough. They had moved from "don't all students deserve the same sort of choices as rich families get" to "there are voucher choices that will be perfectly good enough for poor kids." I'll underline this point again--the Very Libertarian Underwoods had tried to cut the legs out from under, not a traditional public school system, but a true voucher-driven school choice system.

Thanks to a semi-obscure law, the opponents of the budget cut mustered the town and reversed the cuts by a vote of 377-2. 

After I wrote about the Croydon upset, Jody Underwood contacted me. She was not happy. She denied that she had ever known what her husband was going to propose, and she was furious with her opponents who, she felt, had lied and cheated to get the budget cut reversed. As Ian explained in an angry blog post, democracies are a big problem. Ian resigned his selectboard seat in August of 2022 by letter; the reading of the letter was applauded.

So what has Jody Underwood been up to in the 16 months since the budget cut lived its brief and unlamented life?

Almost immediately, citizens circulated a petition to remove Underwood and Aaron Mckeon from the board. The petition was non-binding (you can't petition elected officials out of office in New Hampshire, which seems like a smart rule). Other voices from the budget cut side called for an end to acrimony.

But apparently there was still some acrimony hanging in the air, because back in March, Underwood found herself running against old school choice ally Angi Beaulieu, who was pretty clear about why she felt the need to run. “Somebody needs to step up and protect what we worked so hard for with school choice,” she told the Valley News. “I wasn’t fighting for school choice to take money away from public schools.”

Asked by the Valley News what her plans were, Underwood offered this:

“It’s to move into the 21st century,” she said of her plans. The old ways haven’t worked, and too few children are meeting the standards set for them.

She was still certain that the true majority of Croydon voters support the idea of cutting education costs, which is in keeping with the far right notion that they represent the true heart of the country and they only ever lose because of nefarious shenanigans by their opponents. She also complained that "we've been supporting teachers as a jobs program for a very long time."

Three guesses how the election turned out. 

Beaulieu won 229-36. The town also voted, narrowly, to expand the board from three to five seats.

However, Underwood has landed a new gig. As an education reporter. 

Not just any education reporter. Underwood's new gig is with the Eagle Times. The news outfit (they are a website with few-days-a-week print editions) traces its roots back to the early 1800s in Claremont. They combined, merged, closed their doors in 2009, then reopened under ownership by an outfit in PA.

Then in 2022, Jay Lucas bought them. 

Lucas is an entrepreneur and business consultant. Graduated from Yake in '77, Oxford in '79, and got his MBA and law degree from Harvard in '82. He worked for Bain in the 1980's, the created the Lucas Group-- "a corporate strategy consulting boutique - a 'mini-Bain & Company' - focused on the specialized needs of Private Equity investors and corporate clients." He's from Newport, NH, and at some point he headed back home. He was a member of the NH House, and won the GOP nod for governor, then promptly lost to Jeanne Shaheen. He has been pushing various initiatives to make Newport a better place, and that includes the Sunshine Initiative which includes Sunshine Communications LLC.

That happened about the same time he bought the Eagle Times.

Lucas is a big positivity guy, who regularly writes op-eds for his newspapers like "Winning starts with beginning" and "The positive power of 'no'" The Eagle Times coverage is pretty small town vanilla, but just the editorial titles give you a sense of the publisher's philosophy. 

That publisher is Richard Girard, who had a radio show for six years out of Manchester. He's worked in politics and  has run for a variety of offices, but only ever successfully for a school board seat, where he's been a critic of oh-so-many things. He's plenty conservative; he ran his senate campaign pro ed-choice, anti-CRT, anti-abortion, and pro-gun. His two most recent editorials for the Eagle Times are "Closing Schools Was Foolish, Not Cautious" and "PragerU Isn't Indoctrination"

In short, this seems like a fine home for Underwood.

So far she's contributed a special report on the second Croydon post-election school board meeting (eight people in attendance) and the first two pieces in a series about how the pandemic hurt schools. 

The first piece focuses on Croydon schools, which represent a spectacularly tiny sample. The school has two classrooms--K/1 and 2-4. The principal teaches the 2-4 and the other teacher handles special ed. So it's not clear what is to be learned by studying their collective test results. But what Underwood arrives is the notion that it's that damn Fountas and Pinnell and what we need in here is some science of reading stuff. 

The second piece focuses on New Hampshire as a whole. Her point is that Covid didn't really seem to hurt New Hampshire achievement levels, but reading instruction is in terrible shape anyway. She is particularly bothered in both pieces by the fact that around half of students test as reading below grade level. She does not say whose idea of grade level she's talking about, but since many are based on the median score for students in that grade, a hefty portion of students must be below grade level, just as a large number of Americans are below average height. But she's upset that half of students are below grade level no matter what instructional methods are used. What can I say-- almost half of Americans have always been below average height no matter what changes we make to diet and exercise in this country. 

Six more installments are promised for this series, so Underwood has some work lined up here for at least a few more weeks. Whether she can make a go of this educational correspondent gig remains to be seen, but once again she's in tune with the conservative work, where every piece of activism turns out to be an audition for conservative media.


  1. Thanks for this great investigative journalism, but it's important to note that grade level reading is not the average reading level - it's standards based. So we would hope that all students are reading on grade level, correct? As a special ed teacher, I am telling you, anecdotally, the students' reading levels are crashing, at least among the special ed population. And special ed programs don't teach reading at the high school level. They teach students how to pass their courses, which they can do without reading.
    Fixing this problem would require a major overhaul of education requirements in my humble opinion. Back in the 80's we had standards-based education - good idea! You meet the standard, you get the credit. But right now, I think we are warehousing students and they are not learning the single most important skill k-12 schools are supposed to teach.

    1. It's standards based? And on what is the standard based?