Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill on Thursday that moves the education system directly under the governor’s control.
The bill, H. 440, created a new cabinet position for the secretary of Education who will report to the governor. Under previous law, the commissioner answered to the State Board of Education which also set policy for the state agency.
Similar bills have come up before, but never made it through the legislative process, despite support from both parties. Former Gov.Jim Douglas testified in favor of the bill last year.
Shumlin said the legislation gives governors a stake in the state’s education system, which is essentially run by local school boards.
“I have long felt, as have many governors before me – both Republican and Democrat – that it’s very difficult as a governor to ultimately have a single voice that implements a vision for quality education when the governor does not have direct intervention or input on who the commissioner or secretary of Education might be.”
Critics of the bill said the State Board of Education served as a buffer for the political whims of elected officials. The bill reduces board member terms from six years to three. Members are selected by the governor. Shumlin said the new process would allow for more effective educational policy and hold governors accountable for that he said was the “most important obligation in a democratic society” – education.
“There was tremendous skepticism, tremendous fear that we were somehow politicizing a process that shouldn’t be politicized,” Shumlin said. “I say what we’re doing today is ensuring that we have accountability from the governor and the ability for the elected governor to care about educational quality by having a secretary, a full member of the cabinet, to ensure that that vision is being carried out.”
Stefan Morse, chair of the state board, said he is not worried about the politicization of the education system because the board retains its authority on education policy under the new law.
Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca said the bill would be good for Vermont’s schools.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to have the governor have a very, very strong voice in education, speaking with one voice,” he said. “I think in the past, with a state board of education and a commissioner that was not working under the governor may have led to some issues that may not have been unified.”
In January, the State Board of Education will present Shumlin with three secretary candidates and the governor will make the final selection.
Morse said the board is currently working on formulating educational priorities for Vermont, which will give the new secretary a checklist of what the board deems the most important educational issues in the state.
“We think that’s a healthy way to get the process started,” Morse said.
Lisa Ventriss, executive director of Vermont Business Roundtable, has been a proponent of quality early childhood education. Her organization produced a report in 2007 that showed the state needed strong leadership with a vision for education.
“This has been a long time coming,” Ventriss said.