Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Gov. Peter Shumlin, center, is congratulated by Chief Justice Paul Reiber, left, following his second-term inauguration Thursday in Montpelier. At right is his daughter, Olivia.
MONTPELIER — A governor who spent his first two years in office vowing to grow jobs says he’ll spend his second term creating workers.
In an inaugural address that focused almost solely on education, Gov. Peter Shumlin said he’ll cultivate a skilled workforce to fill the hundreds of open positions for which employers tell him they cannot find qualified workers.
“At the same time that so many Vermonters need to make more money to make life work … our employers, from border to border, are eager to find workers with the right educational skills — and they have good money to pay,” Shumlin said.
The Vermont House chamber was packed Thursday with lawmakers, high-ranking administration officials, media and Vermont citizens who traveled to witness the inaugural ceremony. In a break from tradition, Shumlin focused the entirety of his State of the State address on a single topic, saying public education has failed to adapt quickly enough to a rapidly evolving technology economy.
“Success in the new economy depends on an educated workforce with skills beyond high school in science, computer technology, computer engineering and math,” Shumlin said. “I ask you: Is Vermont prepared to meet this challenge? Are we ready to harness this opportunity so critical to our future prosperity? The plain truth is, we are not.”
Shumlin said 62 percent of job openings in the next decade will require post-secondary education, yet only about 45 percent of Vermont students who begin ninth grade continue their education past high school.
Shumlin said the education gap is particularly stark for children from poor families.
“With the vast amount of money that we spend per pupil in Vermont, we have failed to move low-income Vermont kids beyond high school,” he said.
Solving the problem, he said, means higher taxpayer investment on everything from early childhood education to higher education.
“It is long past time for us to put our money where our mouths have been and strengthen our commitment to universal early childhood education,” he said.
Shumlin would pay for the biggest-ticket item on his education agenda — a massive expansion of subsidized child care — by raising taxes on poor people.
This “largest single investment in early childhood education in Vermont’s history” would increase state spending on child care for low-income families by about $17 million.
But it would raise the new money by reducing what’s known as the earned income tax credit — a program that helps mitigate the tax burden on low-income filers. Shumlin’s plan would essentially raise taxes on those same workers, then use the proceeds to subsidize their child care.
“We’ve been talking about expanding child care opportunities for years, but it takes a big slug of money to really do it,” Human Services Secretary Doug Racine said after the speech. “If we keep waiting for that money to show up, we may end up never doing it. So this is a way to make it happen now.”
As is custom, the State of the State was more high-level vision than nuts-and-bolts game plan. But Shumlin put forth some specific proposals. Among them:
n Increase state appropriations to state colleges and the University of Vermont by 3 percent next year. The excess funds would be earmarked for financial aid and scholarships for Vermonters. Shumlin says the budget increase will be enough to hold all Vermont students harmless from any tuition hikes next year.
n Vermont Strong Scholars Program: A program wherein students who graduate from a Vermont college or university with a degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics and stay in Vermont to work would get their last year of tuition paid for by the state. The money would be paid out over five years. People who graduate with an associate degree in one of those fields would get their last semester of tuition paid for over three years.
n Personal learning plans that “travel with each student from elementary through their senior year.” The plans would tie educational goals to career opportunities, “making school more relevant.”
n Double funding for the so-called dual enrollment program that allows students to gain college credits while they’re in high school. Shumlin said he also wants to expand the number of students permitted to simultaneously complete their senior year of high school and first year of college.
n Vermont Innovation Zones: Use technical education centers as centers where regional employers could help devise education plans that would prepare students for jobs that would be available upon graduation.
Montpelier has gone four years without increasing its approximately $85 million annual appropriation to state colleges and universities. Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding said the $2.5 million increase proposed Thursday will be included in the budget proposal.
Paying down the final year of tuition for math, science and engineering graduates could one day cost as much as $4 million annually, though Spaulding said it would be years before those costs show up in the state budget.
Shumlin isn’t the first governor to devote the bulk of his inaugural to the issue of education. In his final State of the State in 2009, Gov. James Douglas dedicated much of his speech to the same issue. But their messages couldn’t have been more different.
Douglas condemned an education funding formula he blamed for putting the school system “on a collision course with economic reality — threatening not only the dwindling capacity of taxpayers, but also our responsibility to fund essential services for vulnerable Vermonters.”
Douglas wanted structural changes in the school funding law, called Act 68, as well as broad new authority from lawmakers to impose things like minimum class sizes and staff-to-student ratios.
Shumlin, by contrast, lauded the education funding system as being “equitable and progressive,” providing equal access to resources “while preserving local control.”
“Now, some like it and some don’t, and we could debate it until the cows come home, and I’m sure you will,” Shumlin said. “But in doing so, we ignore the next opportunities that will define our future prosperity.”
House Minority Leader Don Turner is among the critics of Act 68. But as long as Republicans are so heavily outnumbered in Montpelier, Turner said, he’s willing to set that issue aside in the interest of working on areas in which he and Democrats can reach agreement.
“I’ve come to the realization we’re not going to dramatically change (Act 68) right now,” Turner said. “But I do hope we can get more bang for our buck, and it sounds like the governor is trying to do the same thing. We’re supportive of that and ready to work with him.”
In exchange, Turner said, he hopes the Shumlin administration will work with him on education reform proposals, including exempting elderly homeowners from property taxes. Turner said the state could fund the exemption by dialing back modestly on the income sensitivity provisions that result in tax breaks for households making more than $90,000.
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