MONTPELIER — School choice was a dominant theme Tuesday as a bill that would consolidate the state’s school districts continued to make its way through the Vermont House.
Tuesday morning, the House Committee on Education once again took up H.883, a bill crafted by a committee that would consolidate the state’s 273 school districts into 45 to 55 supervisory districts, each with a single board, budget and education tax rate.
The bill taken up by the House Education Committee was similar in intent to the one it drafted throughout March, but differs in significant ways after the House Ways and Means Committee did a major rewrite last week.
Among the changes is language that says the statewide plan to consolidate the districts “shall preserve current opportunities for school choice and shall endeavor to enhance opportunities for public school choice.”
Protecting school choice in communities that do not operate a high school, or in some cases an elementary school, was a provision of the Education Committee’s plan.
Rep. Johannah Leddy Donovan, D-Burlington,chairwoman of the House Education Committee, has said previously that expanded districts would offer a greater degree of school choice because students would be able to choose from the schools within the district.
However, Donovan found the new phrase, “endeavor to enhance opportunities for public school choice,” troubling.
“It seems like a back door to implementing school choice throughout the state,” Donovan said. “This looks like choice between school districts, not choice within the expanded district. This is a value statement that choice is good, and that’s what I have a problem with.”
The topic of school choice was in the forefront of discussions among members of the House Appropriations Committee, the next stop for the consolidation bill later that morning.
At the core of the conversation is the question of what would happen when a town with school choice would be faced with joining a town without choice.
Both the original version of the bill and the one from Ways and Means make reference to protecting school choice under the statewide realignment plan. However, both versions of the plan contain a component that allows districts to consolidate voluntarily, and in both cases, it is up to the districts coming together to decide if they have school choice or not.
However, it would likely be an all-or-nothing prospect, said Donna Russo-Savage, an attorney for the Legislature. If one community in an expanded district allows for school choice, it must be available to students in the entire district.
Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, made a pitch for the bill to the Appropriations Committee, and stressed the urgency of the timetable with the Legislature weeks from adjournment.
“We are really at a crisis point in education, in terms of quality and in terms of cost,” Peltz said. “We need to do everything we can to expedite this and move it along.”
Peltz reiterated the underlying premise of the bill: Expanded districts would result in the sharing of services and ultimately allow students from both large communities and small to have equal access to learning opportunities.
“We see a big disparity in what kids are offered,” Peltz said. “Every district within a supervisory union is an island unto itself.”
Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, discussed a concern she has heard from her constituents and others that the streamlining of governance by eliminating local school boards in favor of a single board would remove local control from the residents and voters.
In a brief history lesson, Peltz discussed the last major overhaul of school governance in 1892, when the state’s approximately 2,500 districts were culled down to approximately 300. Unpopular at the time, it was known as the “Terrible Act.”
“We’re trying not to violate the basic principles of local control, but we want to give every kid an even shot at a good education,” Peltz said.
Rep. Jeffrey Wilson, D-Manchester, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee, argued that the concept of “local” has changed, as should local control.
“In the 19th century, local meant your neighborhood,” Wilson said. “In the 20th century, it meant your town. In the 21st century, I believe it means a collection of communities.”
Heath expressed reservations about such a large-scale overhaul of the governance system.
“I think there are kids who are not getting the outcomes they need,” Heath said. “But as a state, our outcomes are excellent and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.”
The House Appropriations Committee is expected to continue to discuss the bill today.
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