Gov. Peter Shumlin is seeking a waiver for Vermont schools from the No Child Left Behind Act, the federal law that requires that all students meet rigorous testing standards.
Officials in Washington have indicated that states will be able to obtain waivers in lieu of reforms to the Bush-era legislation.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan yesterday announced that President Barack Obama had authorized him to issue waivers to states for aspects of the No Child Left Behind requirements. In May, the president asked Congress to present a revised version of the legislation by September.
Because it appears Congress will miss that deadline, Obama has authorized the waivers so that states can start the academic year free of the pressures the law would place on local schools.
When schools fail to meet annual yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Law, they can be subject to dire consequences. Teachers and principals can be fired and districts can lose federal funding under the law, which sets high standards for student test results that some educators say are impossible to meet.
If the state can’t get a waiver from the federal government, it will be more difficult for schools to “avoid the draconian parts” of No Child Left Behind, Shumlin said.
Shumlin spoke with Duncan on Monday. He told members of the state Board of Education on Tuesday that their conversation was encouraging. The governor asked the board to work with his administration to draft a formal request to Duncan in the next 20 days.
“Let’s work together as quickly as we can to get the secretary the information he needs to make Vermont one of the first states that gets the waivers from No Child Left Behind,” Shumlin said at the August meeting of the board.
Fayneese Miller, chair of the board, supported Shumlin’s request for collaboration. She emphasized the need for the state to implement a “measurement system,” as opposed to a single test. A system of diagnostic tools would be more useful, she said, than statistics that don’t represent the full range of a student’s performance.
Under the current of system of testing, Joyce Irvine, a popular principal at Wheeler Elementary in Burlington, was removed for failure to meet testing standards.
Shumlin also addressed several other key educational issues – consolidation of supervisory unions and creating a secretary of education position — that have been discussed by the Legislature, the board and members of public over the last few years. In addition, the governor outlined his vision for a series of student benchmarks.
Shumlin said the state could save millions by reducing the number of superintendents statewide. There are currently about 60 superintendents in Vermont. Shumlin suggested a smaller number of administrators could oversee multiple school boards. Logistical problems with this plan, he said, could be overcome with technology. The governor painted a picture of a superintendent electronically overseeing up to four school board meetings simultaneously without having to get into a car.
Fayneese Miller, chairwoman of the board of education, urged the governor to consider the stress superintendents already endure. Because superintendents have so many demands on their time already, many have difficulty maintaining their personal lives. Miller questioned whether technology could solve all of the problems that might arise under a plan that would reduce the number of superintendents in the state.
Shumlin did not suggest that the state mandate school closures in the interest of consolidating supervisory union districts. A self-proclaimed “local control guy,” he said the communities should decide if such a closure makes sense for them.
“Let the local communities make those decisions,” Shumlin said, “they will make them better than we.”
Stephan Morse, a member of the board and former speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, brought up Shumlin’s quest to make the Department of Education into an agency. Shumlin asked lawmakers to consider legislation that would create an Agency of Education and allow the governor to appoint the secretary.
Currently, the commissioner of the Department of Education is selected by the state Board of Education and must be approved by the governor.
“It’s no secret that this is one of the areas where we disagree,” Shumlin said.
Opponents of the plan say creating a cabinet-level position for education would politicize state policy, and potentially create instability and inconsistency from one governor’s tenure to the next. Morse said the change would completely eliminate the need for the board.
Legislators discussed the proposed shift in February, when former Gov. Jim Douglas testified in support of it in committee. Shumlin pointed out that he wasn’t the first governor to propose such a change.
“I think it’s really important that the secretary of education implement the policies the governor feels strongly about,” Shumlin said. He made sure to point out that the debate had nothing to do with the performance of Armando Vilaseca, the current commissioner, who Shumlin said is doing a good job. Vilaseca sat in silence two seats away from the governor during the discussion.
Despite the disagreement, Shumlin said he was happy with the board’s performance and thanked the members for their work, he said.
“We all know that there is nothing more important in a civilized society and democracy than the education of our children,” he said.
The governor shared three of his personal goals for the state’s education, beginning with elementary school.
Shumlin urged the board to make sure that all students are able to read at a fourth-grade level by the time they’re in fourth grade. This can’t always be done using traditional methods, he said. The governor, who suffered from severe dyslexia in his youth, said the answer sometimes lies outside the traditional classroom in specialized environments, but added there is always an answer.
“If you can teach Pete Shumlin how to read,” he said, “you can teach anyone how to read.”
The governor emphasized that in order to keep the state’s unemployment low and reduce underemployment, children need to be educated on the values of education in the work force before they graduate high school.
“The days when you can succeed in Vermont without an education are over,” he said.
By eighth grade, he said, it is imperative to introduce children to the workforce, from farmers to brain surgeons. To have these workers come to classrooms and discuss their own level of education would help children form a better idea of how education can contribute to their life later on.
Shumlin also said all graduating seniors should have a challenging internship under their belt. Programs for internships already exist in some of the state’s high schools, but the governor urged universal implementation. A lack of coordinating personnel, he said, could be overcome by bringing on AmeriCorps volunteers to help pair students with local businesses.