The House Education Committee is considering a bill that would deliver a body blow to local democracy in Vermont while pursuing the phantom of education reform. Gov. Peter Shumlin has spoken favorably about the bill, and his new education secretary, Rebecca Holcombe, testified in its support before the committee last week.
It is always tempting to pander to property tax payers, but if Shumlin were to back the forced abolition of local school boards, it would represent a shameless reversal of his previously held position.
The committee is at work on a bill that would eliminate the authority of town school boards, creating a super-board at the district level that would oversee numerous schools in a district equivalent to a supervisory union. It is seen as a way of saving money and helping schools improve education for children.
No one has described how either benefit would occur. The bill is really a make-life-easy-for-the-superintendent bill, a reshuffling of the education bureaucracy that would destroy the civic life of small towns from Pownal to Canaan.
Often school consolidation measures emerge as pipe dreams of Chittenden County politicians or education bureaucrats who look at well-functioning large districts, as in Burlington, and conclude that the rest of Vermont might function in the same way.
Indeed, large districts such as Burlington and Rutland have many advantages because they are unified municipalities. But the rest of Vermont is not like that. For the many small towns of Vermont, the local school board is the most important and active democratic entity in town. It is the focus of a town’s civic life. It engages townspeople in the most important and expensive activity of their local government. To take away their authority over budget decisions would be to undermine local democracy throughout Vermont.
In place of local boards, responsive to local concerns, there would be a large district board where each small town might have one representative among many. In suburban Chittenden County, that sort of governance might be acceptable. In most of Vermont, it is not.
Educators talk about the improved education the new system would provide. But how the bulking up of a central office 10 or 15 miles away would improve education in a local school has never been explained. Improving the quality of teaching is an important goal, and it is possible now through the active support of the central office and the effective leadership of a principal.
Holcombe complained that educational quality is uneven among the many schools of Vermont. But that is the human predicament. Some teachers and principals are better than others. No one has said how shifting authority away from local towns would provide better teachers or principals.
The financial savings that would result from the consolidation of authority are also something of a chimera. Is the bulk purchasing of copy paper worth the tumultuous transformation now being contemplated? Schools will still need principals and teachers, and the district will still need superintendents and assistants. If administrators are no longer required to attend to the needs of multiple school boards because the boards no longer have real authority, what that means is the administrators have been permitted to ignore local concerns. Otherwise, the central office will still require personnel to help local schools.
Consolidation always lurks as a potential reform when administrators have run out of other ideas. The Legislature has taken steps to encourage local districts to consolidate schools. A few have done so. But it should be a telling signal that many have looked at the prospect and refused.
Holcombe commented that when she was principal of a small school, the local district could not afford an assistant principal. How removing the authority of the local board would change that was left unexplained.
The state of Vermont is what it is: a state of many dispersed, independent-minded towns that want to run their own affairs. There are advantages and disadvantages. Test scores suggest the state is doing quite well despite the disadvantages. State policymakers should not undermine the advantages.
Instead, they should refrain from pandering to the perennial complaint about taxes and defend a system that Shumlin himself has described as the best in the nation. Improvements in education are always necessary, especially professional development to ensure that teachers in the classroom know how to teach effectively. Those efforts might well be intensified.
Numerous forces are driving taxes higher this year, including declining enrollment. Luckily, most Vermonters are protected because of the provision of the law that pegs taxes to income.
Vermonters are proud of their schools, and they are ready to pitch in at their local school district meetings this Monday and Tuesday to support the education of their children. Robbing local voters of their right to do so is not the way to go.
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