The governor is one step closer to becoming the chief education officer in Vermont.
The House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday that hands many of the responsibilities of the State Board of Education to a new secretary of education who would report directly to the governor.
The Department of Education is now run by the board and by a board-elected commissioner. The legislation essentially removes the board’s authority over public education in Vermont and transfers that power to the governor’s office.
Under the legislation, the board would select a slate of candidates with expertise in education policy for the secretary position and the governor would make the appointment. The secretary would serve at the discretion of the governor.
A cabinet-level education secretary has been proposed off and on for many years, and it’s an issue that doesn’t hit the party fault line. Republican Gov. Jim Douglas, Shumlin’s predecessor, testified in favor of the bill last year, and former Rep. Cola Hudson, also a Republican, proposed a very similar piece of legislation 10 years ago. The 17 lawmakers who voted against the bill included a number of Democrats (standouts include Reps. Martha Heath, Ann Manwaring and Linda Waite-Simpson); likewise many GOP members supported it (Reps. Carolyn Branagan, Patrick Brennan and Kurt Wright).
Proponents say the governor should be ultimately responsible for the overall quality of education in Vermont and must have the authority to improve the school system.
Members of the State Board of Education opposed the change last year and argued that the shift from a board-appointed commissioner to a gubernatorial pick would politicize the Department of Education. They worry that an appointee who serves at the whim of the governor could create instability in the public education system.
Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington and chair of House Education, reported the bill to the House. In her preamble to the reading of the bill, she explained why her committee was anxious to move the legislation forward.
“The governor sits on the sidelines with no real authority to drive decisions,” Donovan explained to her colleagues. “We see changes in governance as an effective way to deal with the achievement gap. The governor is the best leader to effect change. He or she must have the ability to select a secretary of education who answers directly to him. When secretary is at the table and the governor is responsible, goals can be established increasing outcomes for all Vermont kids.”
The state spends $1.4 billion a year on education. Vermont has the highest average spending rate in the country at $17,000 per pupil. Recent test scores indicate that Vermont students aren’t performing well in math though student achievement levels in the language arts are among the best in the country.
Donovan said although Vermont does well academically compared with other states, “it’s imperative we do better.”
Two weeks ago, Shumlin held a press conference with commissioner of education Armando Vilaseca to announce that the state would now require algebra and geometry courses for all high school students in Vermont. The governor said he was responding to the recent test results and to calls from employers who can’t find qualified workers.
The governor’s direct foray into an education policy requirement heartened some lawmakers and gave others pause.
Republican Howard Crawford, a representative from Burke, who voted against Hudson’s bill a decade ago, had a change of heart this time around and supported the new attempt to give the governor more authority over local schools. Crawford said was pleased by the governor’s initiative. The governance change ensures that the governor has a vested interest in student performance, he said.
“When the governor said wait a minute, we’ve got to give students algebra and geometry because that’s what they need to be qualified to be employed and to be successful, I took that as refreshing,” Crawford said.
Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, was on the fence about the bill until he heard from constituents who were concerned about the risk that a political appointee would be subject to the political whims of the governor. He voted against it.
Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Waitsfield, supported the bill, but he said he thought it was unnecessary to require that the secretary to be an educational expert.
“It’s important to cast the net as wide as possible,” Greshin said. “It’s best not to limit it to just someone from the educational establishment. There are many different kinds of leaders with different backgrounds. It would be wise of us to cast the net as wide as possible.”
Under the plan, state board of education terms would be reduced from six years to three, and members, who would have to meet new criteria, would be appointed by the governor. The board would be responsible for reviewing education policies from the secretary and the governor’s office.
Shumlin pushed for the legislation last year and is expected to sign it if the Senate approves the measure. The law would go into effect three months after the General Election. It is not clear from the legislation what the fate of the current commissioner, Armando Vilaseca, will be.