report from montpelier

Kate Webb
Kate Webb

Update on education

By Rep. Kate Webb

Peter Drucker, the world-renowned management consultant and educator, once said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” As we look to restructuring education funding, governance, and proficiency, Drucker’s words ring true. Our sense of community and culture here in Vermont is intimately tied to our local schools, and anything that could threaten that tie brings forth resistance.

But change must come. We are challenged to make changes in our entrenched, century-old education governance system. We are challenged to update our funding of education so that it is equitable, affordable, and appropriately sized for a declining population. We are challenged to help our communities understand that the basic skills of 21st century career and civic life have moved far beyond the 3-Rs. We are challenged to reduce the impact of poverty on learning. And finally, we are challenged to ensure that any change will comply with the 1997 Brigham Decision that declared wide spending disparities between local schools unconstitutional.

Legislation to address these challenges is under construction in the Statehouse. If it is to be successful, it must promote equity, efficiency, and quality, and include local input recognizing that a single delivery model simply won’t work. Here are some potential changes that are picking up traction:

  • Create unified preK-12 districts and require a universal, integrated accounting and data system. There are currently thirteen different governance models in Vermont. Some provide tuition only, some include only K-6, and some are large supervisory unions with as many as eleven school boards. This has contributed to loss of leadership talent and time; incompatible systems for keeping quality data; and resulted in inequity in school programs that may range from three science course offerings in one school to ten in another. Unified districts would also be more efficient and cost effective. The bill sets a plan to move this change forward.
  • Remove or restructure the $11.5 million in grants and protections to small schools. Schools facing rapidly declining enrollment would no longer be permitted to carry forward inflated student counts to ease local tax impact. Small school grants would disappear except for those truly geographically isolated or successfully merged into regional education districts.
  • Limit out of state tuition payments. Other than a small category of exceptions, public tuition dollars would stay in Vermont. The funds to send four students to Kimball Union Academy [in New Hampshire] could be used to cover the salary of a math teacher in Vermont.
  • Simplify the funding formula to make it easier for voters and decision makers to navigate the impact and tax implications of alternate budget scenarios. Some changes would require property assessment dates to be in place by January rather than April 1.
  • Set a moratorium on state mandates that have an impact on property taxes.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities of principals and superintendents. Expect to see changes in hiring practices, and efforts to increase instructional leadership.
  • Reform the collective bargaining process that eliminates the power of teachers to strike while also eliminating the power of boards to impose contracts.

There are several other proposals emerging that would reduce spending or increase efficiencies. Some are under consideration while others would violate Brigham. I expect to see some of this clarified in early March.

If you would like to speak with me, I am reachable by email and cell phone (802) 233-7798. I am also available to meet with you by appointment Tuesday through Friday in Montpelier and Mondays and weekends in Shelburne.