MONTPELIER — A bill that would have placed a moratorium on “flipping” public schools to private died on the House floor Wednesday amid an accusation of racist language by one member.
By a near-unanimous voice vote, House members voted to let lie SB.91, which would have imposed a two-year moratorium on allowing public schools to close and re-open as private schools, as well as calling for a study to determine if such an action is legal.
Rep. Peter Peltz, a Democrat from Woodbury, whose House Education Committee supported the bill by a vote of six to four, said the bill would not affect any past or current privatization efforts.
“No districts are currently considering privatization, and it would take at least two years for a community to go to a vote to privatize,” Peltz said. “This bill would not affect the privatization of the North Bennington Graded School or the Winhall Mountain School.”
Republican Thomas Koch of Barre Town questioned the need for the bill in the first place.
“I understand what the bill does, but I’m trying to understand what the problem is that we’re trying to solve,” Koch said.
Burlington Democrat Johannah Leddy Donovan, who heads the House Education Committee, discussed the many tasks required of public schools that are not required of private schools.
“First of all, they are required to accept all students that show up at their door. They are required to meet the needs of every student that is at their door or in their building, regardless of disability. They are required to hire licensed teachers,” Donovan said. “The Education Committee felt, after receiving this from the Senate, that it was not an unreasonable request to say, ‘Let’s stop any other public school from going private until we have better information on how it impacts the kids of Vermont.’”
Arlington’s Cynthia Browning — a Democrat — expressed her opposition to the bill because she saw it, along with the current proposal to consolidate school districts in the state, as an attack on the local control communities have over their schools.
“This bill, in combination with H.883, gives me pause because it seems that we want to restrict local control and take away rights, or at least suspend rights,” Browning said. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I believe it is taking away an option from schools who might not wish to consolidate.”
The comments that drew the strongest response came from Republican Duncan Kilmartin of Newport City, who took the education bill as an opportunity to compare test scores from students in Vermont — one of the highest-spending states for education — against those from Texas, one of the lowest spending states for education.
“We are an all-white population. Texas scores for all-white population in Texas — not the Hispanics and other minority groups — actually do better than Vermont,” Kilmartin said. “When you parse the statistics, we are not doing as well as we claim because we compare ourselves continually to other states which have large minority populations.”
The remarks drew the ire of Democrat Jean O’Sullivan, who called Kilmartin’s comments racist.
“I don’t want ever to hear a conversation that sounds like it came out 1838, not 2014,” O’Sullivan said. “Conflating academic achievement with race is offensive to me and to everybody. I cannot sit in this chamber and listen to that kind of dribble.”
The hour-long debate was brought to a halt by Republican House Minority Leader Don Turner from Milton, who made a motion to amend the bill to strike the two-year moratorium. The motion led to a lengthy recess, and upon return, Peltz made the motion to let the bill lie.
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