Access to pre-K education, school consolidation, and dual enrollment programs will rank high on the legislative agenda for the 2013 session, according to chairs of House and Senate education committees.
Kevin Mullin, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. Joanna Donovan, chair of the House Education Committee, say persistent declining student enrollments and rising school expenditures will force both committees to return to the unpopular subject of school mergers.
Both Mullin and Donovan will take a second stab at designing dual enrollment legislation, and Mullin says he will introduce a bill to further expand access to preschools. Finding the funding for these measures is going to be tricky, Donovan said, in light of an uptick in property tax rates.
Universal access to Pre-K
Vermont preschools have been eligible for public funding since Act 62 was passed in 2007. In 2011, a cap that limited participation to 50 percent of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds was repealed. Early education is not mandatory and school districts are not required to have preschools.
Mullin, a Republican from Rutland, plans to introduce a bill that would provide universal access to pre-kindergarten students by providing direct payments to providers for children from school districts without preschools.
Mullin has asked legislative counsel to examine whether the current system conflicts with the Vermont Supreme Court’s Brigham decision. “Everyone must pay for the program and not everyone can access it — I think it’s a constitutional problem,” Mullin said.
The Shumlin administration may propose an alternative measure that would scale up incentives for schools districts to start preschools, Mullin said. Under the current system, state funding is distributed based on student count, which is calculated based on a three-year average. This creates a three-year lag period, preventing new preschools from accessing funding upfront. The administration may suggest legislation that would “allow grants to those districts that would hold them harmless for the penalty of the lag time,” Mullin said.
“We passed a very big pre-K bill six years ago, but I think it’s time to revisit it,” Donovan said. The Democrat from Burlington alluded to complications that could crop up. “Money is always the question,” Donovan said. “We have to ask how we are going to pay for it.”
School consolidation will be one of the less palatable topics up for discussion, Mullin said.
“I know it’s a difficult decision but we are going to have to continue to talk about consolidation,” Mullin said. “There is going to have to be some consolidation at the supervisory union level and even at the school level if the trend doesn’t buck.”
Act 153, passed in 2010, offers incentives for voluntary school district mergers. Act 156, passed last session, expands those incentives and makes them available for school mergers even in supervisory unions where some towns have opted out. But so far, both pieces of legislation have been a nonstarter. Neither has spurred consolidation. Only one Regional Education District has been formed, between the school districts of Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru and Weston and the Flood Brook Union District. A bill to reduce the number of supervisory unions from 63 to 16 passed in the Senate last session but died in the House.
“The incentives aren’t real enough for the taxpayers to do it,” Mullin said.
Donovan said school mergers will also be an agenda item for the House education committee. She said she wants these decisions to be made at the local level, but “at some point there is going to be a tipping point and those decisions are going to have to be made.”
Title 16 refurbishment
Both committees will devote a substantial amount of time to a total rewrite of Title 16, which encompasses all education-related statutes. A lot of the work will involve doctoring language and making straightforward technical corrections, Mullin said. According to Donovan, there will also be some substantive decisions to make when it comes to carving out the respective roles of the State Board of Education and the newly created education agency.
Dual enrollment and early college programs
Last year, both the Senate and House education committees drafted bills to institute a statewide dual enrollment program in which 11th-graders and 12th-graders could receive both secondary and postsecondary credit for college courses. Another bill proposed developing early college program at all Vermont State College campuses. Both initiatives withered because lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to fund them. Donovan and Mullin said their committees plan to return to these issues in 2013, but disagreements about the funding source are sure to resurface.
Teacher evaluation tools
Donovan said the House committee will also take a look at the “teacher evaluation tool” developed by a task force including teachers, superintendents, principals, VNEA staff, and other stakeholders. “All education is dependent on having excellent teachers… we need to have a really good accountability system,” Donovan said.
The “tool” is a set of general guidelines that were drawn up at the behest of the Department of Education in order to qualify for funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association and a member of the task force, said he would be “very surprised” if the committee’s deliberation led to a bill proposing a statewide evaluation system.