Editorial: Reform school spending

Vermont’s educators are the primary actors in a crucible that has the potential to reframe the state’s social and economic profile. The question is whether they will embrace the need for change, or hold on to the past.The debate is focused on the $1.3 billion Vermonters spend each year to educate their children. The governor spent a third of his state of the state speech last month stressing the imbalance between student count and increased costs. The state’s education commissioner, Armando Vilaseca, has focused on many of the same issues. Study after study has been completed posing different suggestions to different problems — all with the common denominator conclusion that Vermont has to find ways to bend the cost curve of education and to find more effective ways to improve educational outcomes.But what do our educators say?Not much. As a group, they are horrible at telling their story. Those who do tell the teachers’ stories — the Vermont NEA — are worse and, in fact, are leading them over the cliff’s edge. The danger is an outcome in which school budgets are slashed and the teachers’ message goes untold. Spending less money cannot be a goal unto itself. That’s only half the battle, and not the most important half. If there is no accompanying vision about how to improve educational outcomes, or how to tie the value of education into the state’s social and economic potential, then we will continue the stumble toward mediocrity.This is a vision that should be promoted by us all, but it needs a strong assist from our teachers. But what are we hearing? We’re told that the changes proposed by the governor are an assault on education. We’re told that the thought of consolidation is a threat to local control. We’re told that regulating the number of new hires as a proportion of those retiring is unworkable and Big Brotherish. And on and on.So what is their plan?The status quo.If you talk to individual teachers the frustration is often palpable. Most love what they do and understand the value of their efforts. If someone could show them a better way, most would respond accordingly. But as a group, they are frozen in place, seemingly immune from the pressures that affect the rest of us. The result has created an us-versus-them mentality, when, in fact, we should all be on the same side.The reality is that there are more of us — taxpayers — than them educators. As the political crescendo continues to build — and it will — the teachers, and our schools, are at risk. When teachers negotiate contracts with build-in escalator clauses and benefits that outstrip what other have, they court taxpayer anger. When they are unwilling to show how they can be the pivotal part of an improved educational delivery system, they forfeit the opportunity to lead.And that’s what this is about: leading. And to lead there needs to be a goal, and meaningful goals are never static. They are adjusted and continually put just beyond our immediate reach. These goals also need to be promoted. Tirelessly.Establishing and then promoting the goals of education in Vermont? Is that the job of our educators?No, not by their lonesomes; it’s all of our jobs, which is why we’ve pushed the idea that education should be Vermont’s premier brand. It should constitute as much of our identity as farms and tourism and each of us have a part in establishing this identity. We have that potential. We have a small student base. We have a history of supporting education. We have a highly educated population. And we spend a ton of money on our schools. Other states may have one or more of these variables. Vermont is the only state that has them all.There is no reason we can’t set the educational standard for all other 49 states to follow. To achieve this potential we need our educators to break from the inertia that binds them to the past. Instead of telling Vermonters what they oppose, they need to tell us what needs to change to make our schools demonstrably better.This need should be viewed as an opportunity and it should be one of the defining issues of this year’s gubernatorial campaign. What we don’t need is someone who seeks political advantage by pitting one group against the other. What we do need is a leader who sees the profound advantage in branding Vermont as the educational state and who has the vision to get it done.—Emerson LynnSt. Albans Messenger

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