Jeb Wallace-Brodeur/Times Argus
MONTPELIER – As lawmakers and the governor clash over how to rein in spiraling education costs, Vermont's commissioner of education is taking aim at what he says is the source of the state's school-spending dilemma.
Too many schools and too few students, according to Armando Vilaseca, have fueled an education system that now consumes half of all state spending. The more than 300 public schools in Vermont, many of which serve only dozens of students, are too powerful a financial drain in a state whose school-aged population numbers less than 90,000.
"We don't need as many superintendents as we have now. We don't need as many principals as we have now. We don't need as many teachers as we have now," Vilaseca told the Vermont Workforce Council at a Statehouse gathering Thursday. "Our costs are driven by personnel costs – you know that and I know that … If we continue on the path we're on now, we'll never make inroads."
Vilseca has been preaching his consolidation sermon at school districts across Vermont since he was tapped as commissioner less than six months ago. The platform isn't a new one; Vilaseca's predecessor, Richard Cate, also sought to consolidate schools and produced an analysis detailing the benefits of moving more students under fewer roofs.
Vilaseca says he intends to achieve visible results in the next decade, but that it will take buy-in from taxpayers and school leaders. He recounted a recent visit to Windham Elementary School, which will have 15 kids enrolled next year in its pre-K through 6th grade program.
"You can't operate that way,' Vilaseca said. "I don't have the authority to change it. If I did, I'd wave a magic wand and make it happen. What I do have is a bully pulpit."
Vilaseca, a 29-year educator, said it's time for Vermont to offer meaningful financial incentives to encourage districts to consolidate schools. That Vermont has one school board member for every 70 students, he said, indicates the scope of the problem.
"My frustration is, why haven't we seen more movement? And that's why I want to do what I'm doing," he said. "I have a short professional career left and after that I'll have no more influence. And I'll be damned if I'm not going to see some real differences."
Vilaseca called the sheer number of schools a vestige of Vermont's agrarian past. Reforming a century-old education system, he said, is necessary not only for cost-containment, but also to prepare students for the modern economic landscape.
Times have changed, Vilaseca told members of the Workforce Development Council, but schooling hasn't. The fate of Vermont's next generation, and the economy they'll inherit, according to Vilaseca, hinges on efforts now under way to transform the environment in which children learn.
"If you walk through most high schools today … what you'll see is school in 1960," Vilaseca said. "Yes, there are teachers and schools doing some innovative things. But for the most part we have a system that hasn't changed much in the last 100 years."
Vermont schools, Vilaseca said, remain on an agrarian calendar in which students depart the building in the early afternoon and have entire summers off. Unless Vermont transforms classrooms into laboratories for 21st century skills, according to Vilaseca, the majority of students here will exit high school woefully unprepared for the world that awaits.
"The single most valuable resource in most communities is not being used for probably 50 percent of the time, and that has to change," Vilseca said of schools' operating hours.
A "transformational" school, he said, is open 12 months a year, from early morning to late at night, and offers students a home base from which they can take online courses, commute to area colleges or depart during the day for internship experience at real-world jobs.
"I'm looking at a school where a kid comes to school in the morning, takes an English class, maybe goes to the library for an online course and then heads off to an internship with a local veterinarian or auto parts store," Vilaseca said. "Then he still goes back to school to play in the band or the chorus or basketball."
Vilaseca told council members that students' economic success relies on this new educational venture.
"Until we are able to do that, schools will not be successful for the majority of students," he said. "That's what's missing – the real-life applications, the real-world learning that we cannot provide for them."
Vilaseca said the new system doesn't abandon basic educational principles, nor will students forgo the fundamentals of writing, reading, and arithmetic. But those traditional staples won't suffice, he said, in a world where a high school diploma is no longer a ticket to financial security.
"Times have changed and the expectations for kids graduating from high school to have productive lives is over," he said.
Vilaseca said high school graduates in his era could find factory or manufacturing jobs paying wages sufficient to support their families with relative comfort.
"That can't happen anymore," Vilaseca said. "And we can't lie to kids and say that's a reality."
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