BRISTOL — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Monday at a legislative luncheon in Bristol urged Addison County residents and their legislative delegation to support his public education reform agenda in the next two legislative sessions.
He said that maintaining the status quo will leave future generations of Vermonters unable to compete in the regional or global economies.
It was during his state of the state speech in early January that Shumlin outlined a series of priorities for improving the state’s education system, from preschool through college. Those priorities, he said, are aimed at getting the youngest children better prepared for grade school while increasing the numbers of Vermont youths — particularly those from low-income households — in completing post-secondary school degrees.
While Shumlin believes the state has, through Act 68, done much to make education financing more equitable, he said, “We have not moved the needle one iota in terms of moving more poor kids beyond high school.”
He added that while Vermont schools are “doing OK” in imparting math skills at the elementary school level (67 percent proficiency in grades K-8), he said “when we get to high school … that proficiency drops from 67 percent down to 43 percent. You’ve got to ask, what are we doing wrong between grade school and high school?”
The answer, according to Shumlin, is a lack of rigorous curricula in geometry and algebra, which he said provide solid foundations for many of the good paying science-tech jobs that cannot be filled at several Vermont companies.
“From the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border and everywhere in between, and not just Chittenden County, employers say to me, ‘Governor, things are changing. Over the last couple of years we have gone from having to make layoffs … to having a challenge in finding enough employees who are trained to do the work that we have. Can’t you get us more people who are trained in science, in math, in technology and engineering?’”
To redress this, Shumlin has proposed:
• A “dual enrollment” system through which Vermont high school students would be able to take a year’s worth of college courses for free.
“Since we are spending $15,500 on average per pupil right now, which is more than any of the other states in America except for one or two, why can’t we have dual enrollment or early college so that we can have more high schools teaching college-accredited courses right in their classrooms, or allowing our students to take a course or two at institutions of higher learning at the state colleges like CCV,” he said.
Shumlin is proposing that college-related expenses be absorbed through the current per-pupil expenditure of $15,500, a suggestion that has drawn criticism from some public school leaders who are concerned about the prospect of seeing less money earmarked for K-12.
“Let the money follow the kid,” he said of the state’s education block grant.
“Does it mean change? Sure. Is there some inconvenience? Yes. Does it matter? Yes. We can move more kids beyond high school while they’re in high school,” Shumlin said.
• Increased state funding for higher education for the first time in five years, and using that increase to neutralize (for Vermont students) the impact of next year’s tuition hikes in the state’s college system.
“Is that a step in the right direction? Yes it is,” Shumlin said.
• A new system of flexibility in grades 1-12 that would allow students to study the subjects that they choose.
“I am not saying that every kid needs to go to college,” Shumlin said. “I am not saying that every kid needs a four-year degree. I am not saying that everyone needs a PhD. I am saying that if you only have a high school degree and you don’t get some additional training … you are destined to a life of low wages.”
• The biggest increase in funding ($17 million) for early childhood education in the state’s history.
“We know that if we spend the money early, we have a very high success rate in ensuring they get through school and on to college and actually succeed in a learning environment,” he said. “If we don’t spend the dollars early, we have a high risk of failure, particularly for low-income kids.”
Shumlin acknowledged his plan will require what is, in some legislative circles, a very unpopular infusion of money.
Rather than raising broad-based taxes, Shumlin is proposing to “use the existing dollars that we have in a smarter way.”
Specifically, he is proposing to redirect $17 million from the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to the early child education program. The plan has drawn criticism from those who said the move would redirect tax refund money away from many poor Vermont households. Shumlin said the change would only affect single EITC-eligible Vermonters (for a 15-percent hit on their refund), while those with children would enjoy the augmented early childhood education benefit.
At the same time, Shumlin is proposing to cut the Reach Up welfare program by $6 million, capping benefits at five years while ensuring that recipients cannot spend more than three consecutive years on the rolls.
“If we are going to meet this challenge for prosperity, we need everybody in, everybody working, everyone to have a bright and prosperous future,” Shumlin said. “Our current Reach Up program is the only program in America where there are timeless benefits, where you can stay on the system forever. I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think welfare benefits should be temporary, not timeless.”
Again, Shumlin has drawn criticism for the proposed Reach Up cuts, with some arguing that the impact on many Reach Up clients will outweigh the benefits of the savings.