The movement toward education reform in Vermont this year has been like a bar game. Blindfold legislators. Give them darts. Point them toward the dartboard.
The perceived problems have been various, and the solutions advanced have been diverse, often having little to do with the problems. It doesn’t matter. Throw a dart and it might hit something.
As the legislative session wanes, legislators, as well as the Agency of Education, have been throwing out an ever more confusing and incoherent array of solutions. This isn’t how major reforms promising fundamental changes to society take place.
One of the most important proposals was the school consolidation bill that originated in the House Education Committee. This is the one that would have abolished school boards in most Vermont towns, empowering large central boards to run all the diverse schools within their expansive districts.
First of all, one has to ask where the clamor came from for the abolition of school boards. Is it coming from the people of Vermont? Are citizens in Sudbury demanding that the state terminate the existence of the Sudbury School Board so that Sudbury’s school can be run by a central board dominated by members from Brandon and Pittsford? This is not likely. And yet that would be the consequence of the House bill.
In fact, the consolidation bill springs from the minds of superintendents weary of trooping out to towns like Sudbury for school board meetings. Support also comes from officials at the Agency of Education, who view education from on high. Support does not come from those who do the actual teaching and might well fear that pushing the administration away from the local level would be alienating and less efficient.
The consolidation of governance was supposed to save money. But wait. The committee eventually concluded that it wouldn’t save money.
Consolidation was also supposed to offer greater opportunity for students in a large district to share resources and enjoy greater equality in education offerings. And yet a cry from the grass roots complaining that some schools are being neglected has been little heard. In fact, schools share resources now, and imaginative administration could widen the sharing. It is true that some schools have better teachers and administrators than others, but no one has explained how abolishing school boards with intimate knowledge of their schools in favor of boards that lack that knowledge would help resolve that problem.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has provided poor leadership on this issue. He always likes to show that he is sensitive to the gripes of property-tax payers so he has paid lip service to the bill, even though he had promised never to force involuntary consolidation on school districts. Now, he has backed away from the involuntary part, the absence of which would more or less gut the bill.
The Agency of Education, which is now accountable to Shumlin, has proposed an alternative to doing away with mandatory consolidation, instead offering greater financial incentives for school districts to choose to consolidate. Sen. Dick McCormack had an apt rejoinder to that idea: “Why do we need incentives if it’s such a good idea? Why don’t they consolidate if it will save money and increase opportunities for students?”
The premise for the sound and fury this year is that somehow our schools are failing. All indicators suggest that is not true. Improvements can be made through teacher training and consistent economic support. Meanwhile, a variety of demographic and economic pressures are pushing up school costs and taxes, and voters, who rejected almost three dozen budgets this year, have shown they are capable of defending their own interests without micromanaging from Montpelier.
The proposed assault on local democracy has alarmed Vermonters who appreciate the unique value of local government and town meeting. Frank Bryan, the widely respected scholar of Vermont town meeting, called the present bill “the most serious threat” to small-town democracy he has ever seen, and he urged legislators to defeat it. That message is catching on. The last-ditch effort to cobble together some sort of bill is a futile exercise. It’s time to put away the darts.
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