Vt. school district overhaul: Education equality vs. local control
MONTPELIER — A bill that would consolidate the state’s nearly 300 school districts is drawing both support and opposition as it winds its way through the Vermont House.
Bill H.883 outlines a seven-year process that would eliminate supervisory unions and consolidate the state’s 273 school districts into what the bill calls “expanded districts” that offer pre-K-12 education, offer access to a technical center and — with possible exceptions — have a minimum of 1,250 students.
The bill, which was advanced on a unanimous vote by the House Committee on Education, is now before the House Ways and Means Committee, which will hold a hearing on the bill from 5 to 7 p.m. Wednesday in Room 11 of the State House.
And while the public will line up to give their opinion on what would be the first major overhaul of school governance in Vermont in more than a century, interested parties are lining up on either side of an issue that appears to pit unequal access to education against loss of local control.
Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, offered testimony on the bill to the House Ways and Means Committee following a meeting with his association’s executive council.
“The Vermont Principals’ Association executive council is fully in support of the intention of House bill H.883,” Page said. “We see this proposed legislation as a first statewide step in improving learning opportunities for all Vermont students.”
The intent of the bill goes something like this: By knocking down the boundaries between districts — many of which contain one school, with others containing no school at all — the expanded districts would be able to share resources, meaning staff, and provide a more equal education for students, regardless of the size of their communities.
Steven Dale is the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, which includes approximately 1,450 school board members across the state. While his association has not taken an official position on a bill that would eliminate individual boards in favor of a single board for each expanded district, Dale spoke of challenges that many small districts face when they try to offer art or music classes, or field a sports team.
“In many schools, there are not enough students in grades 5 through 8 for a band or for sports,” he said. “And it can difficult to find a 0.3 FTE (full-time equivalent) music teacher.”
Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the state Agency of Education, spoke of the disparity in courses offered by high schools that are just few miles apart, or the disparity between two K-8 schools within the same supervisory union that feed into the same high school.
Holcombe said that from the state’s perspective, having so many small districts inhibits the Agency of Education from properly measuring the quality of schools.
In the interest of confidentiality, test results for the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) are suppressed when the data pool is below a certain level. This means that the state does not receive data from 22 of 304 schools.
But it also means the state does not get data on 14 percent of students who receive free lunch, a measure of household poverty; 38 percent of students with disabilities; or 88 percent of students who are black.
“One of the reasons we’re pursuing this new model is that the test scores don’t tell the whole story,” Holcombe said.
The bill is receiving support from four previous heads of education in the state, including Holcombe’s predecessor, Armando Vilaseca.
“This is something I’ve been advocating for, even prior to my position as commissioner,” said Vilaseca, who was first a commissioner and later a secretary when the state changed education from a department to an agency.
“We have a very convoluted system of governance, and what this does is it simplifies that system and will provide for better access to educational opportunities,” he said.
Vilaseca oversaw the implementation of Act 153 in 2010, which provided financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily.
The proposed bill would give districts until 2017 to create their own consolidation plans. Afterward, the state would force the merger of the remaining districts.
“I think this is the next logical step after Act 153. Give them time to do it, but have something in place to get it done,” Vilaseca said. “We have a statewide funding system, so the decisions that are made in one school district affect taxpayers in another district.”
Former commissioner Richard Cate, who led the Department of Education from 2003 until 2008, also supports the bill.
“For me, a lot of it has to do with ensuring quality education for students in Vermont,” Cate said. “In this day and age, it’s hard for a small school to provide all of the services. It’s not that the school building needs to be large, but the district needs to be able to offer a variety of services.”
Cate, who received education through the eighth grade in a two-room school house in East Calais, said the current 19th-century governance structure isn’t effective in the 21st century.
“We don’t need what we needed in 1892 when we created this system,” Cate said. “What we expect our kids to know, and the means by which they are learning, has changed.”
Ray McNulty, who was commissioner of the Department of Education from 2001 until 2003, said the proposal is a bold one.
“It takes courage to raise this issue of governance in Vermont,” he said. “I think we need to be courageous enough to abandon a practice that might have made us successful in the past.”
Also in support of the bill is former education commissioner Dave Wolk, now president of Castleton State College. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Of course, not everyone supports the bill. Dale, as executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, held a series of meetings in March around the state and heard from school board members who said the state should allow consolidation to happen voluntarily under Act 153. Others expressed opposition to the state imposing any controls that might lead to a loss of local control.
Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-NEA, the teachers’ union, pointed to the fact that there has been little voluntary consolidation under Act 153 as a sign that districts don’t want to consolidate.
“It escapes me how we can expect our communities to embrace the sort of mandate this bill contemplates when they rejected an approach with benefits,” he said.
Cook also echoed a criticism voiced by many, who say there is lack of data to support the thesis that creating expanded districts will result in students having access to more and better classes.
“The concern we have is the absence of evidence that governance change translates, without a whole lot more, into expanded opportunities to learn,” Cook said.
“I certainly understand the logic, but I believe the experience in other locales would lead to the conclusion that learning opportunities generally decline for kids from outlying communities, small communities, low-wealth communities,” he said.
Opposition is also being heard at the local level. The board of the Addison Rutland Supervisory Union — which includes schools in Benson, Castleton, Fair Haven and Orwell — approved a resolution opposing the bill, stating that “eliminating the local school board governance is not conducive to promoting our democratic ideals and fostering social capital.”
The resolution states that “consolidating to pre-K to 12 districts will ultimately put pressure on small schools to close.”
The bill can be read online at goo.gl/eLTjyk.
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