Editorial: Looking anew at school reform

In the wake of the economic downturn, educational systems in the 50 states have been facing dramatic cuts or reform, or both. In Kansas City last week, the school board there narrowly approved a measure (5-4) to close nearly half of that district’s schools in an effort to consolidate and reduce a projected $50 million shortfall. The approved plan calls for closing 29 of the district’s 61 schools. About 700 of the district’s 3,000 jobs, including 285 teachers, are expected to be cut.

The action taken in Kansas City is mentioned in this Vermont newspaper because too often critics of Vermont’s educational system paint the problem as if it is Vermont’s own. Critics cite the rapid increase in educational spending as if it is all the fault of Acts 60 and 68, or of the state’s teacher union, or our town meeting form of government.

It isn’t so. The problems facing Vermont are a microcosm of those facing the nation, with many of the same fundamental roots: rapidly rising health care costs, an aging teacher population that is paid more the longer they serve a school district (which also keeps them from changing jobs or transferring to other schools), technology costs, rising special education costs, and on and on. Knowing that Vermont is not alone, it would be enormously helpful if critics of the state’s school system would drop their myopic perspectives and look more broadly at the solutions Vermont may be able to employ.

What we know is that the state’s funding for education is taxing residents on an ever-increasing trend line that is not sustainable. (In the past decade, net education property taxes in Vermont have more than doubled, from $450 million to $900 million; meanwhile, education spending has increased  $600 million since 1997 to $1.4 billion today.) We know that student enrollments are declining in many school districts leading to school facilities that are underutilized and don’t make economic sense to operate. And, yes, we know that we have communities that simply do not want to lose their town elementary schools to consolidation, regardless of the costs.

Inherent conflicts need to be resolved, but we also know they won’t be resolved by slashing budgets.

What’s needed are perspectives that take the excellent school system Vermont has (compared with the nation Vermont’s schools are near the top) and restructure it in such a way that outcomes are improved, while costs are respectfully contained. The goal should be to make Vermont’s schools the envy of the nation, producing a skilled workforce and college-bound graduates — with the emphasis on K-16, not just K-12.

Vermont has several advantages to help make this happen: Our schools are already good, we are accustomed to financing education and believe in good outcomes, we are small and nimble enough to make creative solutions successful, and — as a state — we need this to work. We are too small to lose our best and brightest to other states; our future depends on creating a quality of life here that is next to none when it comes to providing a safe place to raise a family, great recreational opportunities, and schools that provide one of the best public educations available.

At least, if we could all agree that should be the goal, then we can work together to figure out the details.

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While some critics are crying for school budgets to be decimated, Rep. Heidi E. Scheuermann, R-Stowe, has presented a plan that attempts to do the right things: restructure the state’s school system in fundamental ways that could actually save money and produce better results.

She starts with the premise that we must do a better job of educating our kids with fewer resources, putting the right emphasis on improving educational outcomes. She would do that by taking the state’s 63 supervisory unions and creating 14 or 15 Education Districts (ED) that would roughly follow the outlines of existing counties. Each would have a district board that would be responsible for a district budget to support all schools within the district. (In Addison County, such an ED would include the three high school districts — plus or minus Otter Valley Union High school — including all elementary schools.) Each ED would coordinate education among the schools, including transportation costs, special education services, hiring personnel, supplies, and so forth.

Such consolidation would allow students to move freely between elementary schools, high schools and vocational schools, plus between Education Districts, if needed. The advantages are many. As Scheuermann says, “This will provide greatly expanded opportunities for our children and allow for our schools to become beacons of high quality, and could eventually lead to mini-charter schools (without the charters) for math and engineering, or arts and humanities, and the like… In order for this kind of transformation to be successful, however, the funding system must be changed. We must align the tax structure with the education structure. So, as we move to a regional education a system, we must move to a regional tax system.”

In a recent column, Scheuermann digresses into a funding scheme that would keep local money at home, and satisfy her town’s beef with the current system in which gold towns help finance poorer school districts. It’s a digression that will have to be expected, even though the bottom line in financing education is that there must (according to the Brigham decision) be equal opportunity for education from one town to another. Some sharing then, regardless of how the money is raised, will occur.

But that is the minor point, and one that must temporarily be put aside if Vermont is to address a much bigger question: How can we take advantage of the state’s solid education system, make it even better, and use that excellence (along with our other very high marks on quality of life) to attract a robust economy?

We can do that by tackling Vermont’s problems in ways that set up the state for future success, not by impoverishing our educational system so that we are forever struggling to achieve the bare minimum for our students. To achieve cost efficiencies, as Rep. Scheuermann says, we must “facilitate the sharing of resources between schools more efficiently and effectively and re-think our educational delivery.”

It’s an idea to build on, and a progressive spirit to embrace.

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Addison County Independent

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