• The annihilation of local
    April 29,2014

    Vermonters are facing a move in our Legislature, endorsed by the state’s education bureaucracy, to consolidate our local schools into “expanded” districts. Some of us, thinking that consolidation would bring greater efficiency and therefore lower costs, may at first suppose there might be some fiscal merit in the proposal.

    There isn’t.

    Even supporters now concede there’s little likelihood of savings and that consolidation will probably increase the cost of public education. For every imagined economy of scale, at least as many inefficiencies arise owing to the new bureaucracy’s greater distance from the classrooms where education happens.

    While the bill does replace existing supervisory union superintendents with fewer uber-superintendents, anyone who thinks those expanded district superintendents won’t be hiring assistant superintendents has never met a superintendent. Additionally, the bill and its sponsors don’t begin to account for the costs involved in leveling teachers’ salaries and equalizing tax rates.

    Bearing in mind that consolidation won’t save money, can we please stop citing the defeat of a fraction of the state’s school budgets as justification for this bill?

    Even more crucially, the bill does more than reshuffle supervisory unions. It eliminates local school boards.

    Read that again. It eliminates local school boards. Eliminating those boards eliminates your power to control your local school. This means that you can be outvoted by citizens from other towns regarding the district’s school budget and your taxes, and that your town’s representative on the expanded board can be outvoted by representatives from the other towns in your new district. In short, the board members from other towns can vote to do anything they want in and with your town’s school, including close it if they decide it will save the expanded district money.

    The bill’s advocates assert it somehow protects small local schools. This is an illogical argument at best and a deceit at worst.

    With the bill financially all but indefensible, proponents now offer “equity” as its prime justification. Equity formerly meant the ability to spend money on school programs, which is why we restructured our tax system via Acts 60 and 68. Supporters now assert that equity means “the quality and variety of educational opportunities available to students throughout the state.” In other words, not only must your school’s students have access to the same amount of money, but the teachers, parents and citizens in your town must do the same things with that money as all other schools.

    The bill’s advocates will claim I’m overstating their intention. But if that’s not what they mean, then their definition of equity and their justification of larger districts make no sense. The logical extension of their species of equity is that Vermont should be redefined as one large statewide school district.

    Most proponents will deny that’s what they have in mind. But if they mean what they say, that’s what they logically should have in mind.

    I’m sure it will occur to them sooner or later.

    Will the Legislature next contrive to eliminate select boards? Will road “equity” next be required of towns when it comes to asphalt and gravel? Shouldn’t police and fire protection be as equitably available as education? At least for our schools, voluntary cooperation is insufficient to satisfy the Legislature. Which town service will fall next?

    Proponents maintain we must redefine “local.” They contend that just as neighborhoods once gave way to towns as our standard of “local,” so must we now abandon individual towns in favor of combinations of towns, that those expanded districts are the new “local.” Several flaws invalidate that argument. When we combined our hamlet schools, our towns already existed, and they were composed of our neighbors. Our towns weren’t artificially formulated and imposed to replace our neighborhoods.

    Supporters nebulously claim the bill is about “what’s good for kids.” The State Board of Education, in a meaningless flight of rhetoric, declares the bill will enable all students to “thrive and prosper.” No one is against children thriving and prospering. The question is who gets to decide what thriving and prospering look like for your children. This bill says it’s not up to towns, and it’s not up to parents. In place of towns and parents, the Legislature would insert itself and its new mandated, expanded districts.

    That arrogance is unconscionable.

    The Legislature’s blindness to the decades of follies and failures spawned by the Agency of Education and our state’s education bureaucrats, from portfolio assessment to the current top-down implementation of the Common Core, and its willingness to again trust the recommendations of those bureaucrats and to place consolidation in the hands of an agency “design team,” is appalling.

    The Legislature’s silence in the face of self-serving complaints that local governance of schools is too “inconvenient” is a dereliction and a disappointment.

    A pernicious fault in public education is that too many decisions are already made by authorities too far removed from classrooms and students. This bill only extends that distance.

    To garner support, some legislators have proposed permitting limited school choice within the expanded districts. I’m not opposed to school choice.

    But we need to remember, as we stand on the brink of tearing down our home-based system of schools, that the school choice that matters to most of us is the choice we exercise through our local boards to make our children’s schools what we want them to be.

    That’s something none of us should be willing to lose or be compelled to surrender.

    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.

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