• Democracy and education
    March 05,2014

    In response to the March 2 editorial “Attack on democracy,” I encourage everyone to take a deep breath and look at what the House Education Committee is doing and why it is doing it. This is not an attack on democracy.

    The House Education Committee is focused on improving learning opportunities for students by stressing the need that all students have equal access to a quality education.

    The last time governance change was legislated in Vermont was in 1892 when 2,500 school districts became 300 town districts, and a similar outcry was heard then about the assault on democracy. In 1912 legislation created supervisory unions to administer teacher qualifications and standards for teaching — again met with similar resistance.

    So here we are now more than 100 years later looking at our current delivery system developed in an agrarian economy to meet today’s challenges in a global economy. Noteworthy, also, is the formation of union high schools made in the late ’60s — are their union boards any less democratic?

    Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe’s concern about uneven “educational quality” in supervisory unions is not about “some teachers and principals are better than others”; rather it is about who is responsible for education policy and delivery in a supervisory union — the local boards or the superintendent. The significant disparity in student achievement in supervisory unions needs to be examined.

    Act 153 was enacted four years ago to create incentives for voluntary district mergers. It has not reduced the 280 school districts, but it did create an opportunity for school board members to discuss amongst themselves the merit of sharing resources. It is very difficult for boards to expand their deliberations beyond the demands of their office. This was acknowledged by the Vermont School Boards Association executive committee’s recent unanimous vote to work with the Legislature to improve learning opportunities for students with the development of this bill.

    The bill proposes that by 2019, or possibly later, all supervisory unions will cease to exist. The first phase will last until 2017-18 by allowing districts to do what was offered in Act 153: voluntarily merge into a supervisory district. Thereafter, those districts that haven’t merged will be assisted by a design team to become a member of a supervisory district.

    There will be one board and one budget. The budget will be voted by Australian ballot at town meetings throughout the supervisory district, similar to union high school budget votes, thus eliminating the current charge that supervisory union budgets are not voted upon. The board and the superintendent will coordinate their oversight of the supervisory district that will include how shared teachers will be deployed throughout the schools. Legislation will define the role of school-based community councils that will remain active in their schools to work with the principal and their representative(s) at the supervisory district board level.

    Each district will have the opportunity to address local concerns when they write the required Articles of Agreement to merge as a supervisory district. For example, how school-based community councils are selected or how to deal with the closure of schools — an acceptable example is only with a unanimous vote of the board — can be dealt with in the articles.

    The purpose of this bill is to restrain spending and channel available resources to meet the needs of all students. Vermont has one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country but low rates of higher education achievement. Job preparedness for students also needs to be improved. Poverty has increased 15 percent to 20 percent over the past 10 years, and the resulting achievement gap has increased. Governance and administration are directly linked to how well our schools prepare students for their adult lives. The engagement of students is critical to their learning experience.

    As Vermont transitions beyond the traditional classroom, so too has The Times Argus had to react to market forces. How well our students are educated and how well citizens are informed are the most crucial components of democracy.

    This bill is still a work in progress, and we welcome public input.

    Rep. Peter Peltz, of Woodbury, is vice chairman of the House Education Committee.

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