Poor Elijah’s Almanack: The fruit of arrogance

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Peter Berger, an English teacher at Weathersfield School, who writes “Poor Elijah’s Almanack.” The column appears in several publications, including the Times Argus, the Rutland Herald and the Stowe Reporter.

Vermont’s State Board of Education has voted to endorse the elimination of local, town school boards in favor of consolidated, “expanded districts.” The board’s resolution contends that the plan recently approved by the House Education Committee will “modernize Vermont’s educational governance system” in order to provide “all Vermont students” with an “equitable opportunity to prosper and thrive in all Vermont schools.”

Welcome to the world of education platitudes that bear no resemblance to reality and that every day obstruct actually teaching Vermont’s students in Vermont’s actual schools. The theory of education-speak is that if you sprinkle your bad ideas with words like “modernize,” “equitable,” “prosper,” and “thrive,” no one will dare disagree with you, and everyone who only casually listens will think you must be right.

By that definition of “modernize,” Vladimir Putin is modernizing Ukraine. And I’m sure Kim Jong Un would tell you he just wants his people to prosper and thrive.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not equating our representatives in Montpelier with those tyrants. But I’m tired of empty rhetoric masking decisions that every day impede efforts to improve our schools by the people who are actually in our schools. I’m tired of leaders who mouth and swallow empty words.

Consolidated school districts, for example, in no way promote equity. If by equity, you mean how much money each school has available to spend, then make some reasonable changes in the way we fund schools. Increasing the distance of the governing body from the school it governs has nothing to do with equity. It will increase administrative costs, which even supporters of consolidation now concede. It will also allow even more of education’s bandwagon snake oil miracles to be forced down the throats of local schools and communities that don’t want them.

Consolidating districts will in no way “optimize learning.” It won’t eliminate layers of bureaucracy, but will instead add layers of bureaucrats farther away from the schools they’re supposed to be governing. Consolidated schools are in no way better positioned to deliver “21st century skills.” As for being “innovative,” innovation and improvement aren’t synonyms. Innovation, which means making things new, is good only when it also makes things better.

If our representatives in Montpelier elect to usurp our authority over our own schools, we should remember that the next time it’s our turn to elect them.

 

Eliminating local boards means eliminating the power of local citizens to govern the schools their children attend. If that’s a step in the right direction, if that advances the ability of the public to govern its public schools, I’d like someone to explain how. It will also lead to closing local schools without the consent of the communities that built them and filled them with children.

Further distancing the governance of our schools from the classrooms and corridors where education happens won’t improve education. The embarrassingly unimpressive record of our state education bureaucracy in promoting and enforcing the long series of ill-conceived “reforms” they incessantly bill as “education change,” “restructuring,” and “transformation,” from portfolios to the current Common Core mandate, ought to be all the evidence anyone needs.

Supporters of the consolidation bill point to provisions that establish “advisory committees” that could offer their opinions to their town’s representative on the “expanded board.” These advisory committees, however, would have no power to make any decisions.

I’m familiar with how consulting and “working” with “stakeholders” plays out in education. I’ve been on committees like that. It’s a brilliant tactic. The people who have no power, in this case the citizens who used to elect their local school boards and whose schools we’re talking about, get to say what they think. Then the people who do have power, meaning the new, distant, “expanded” board members get to choose between two options. If they happen to agree with the “advice,” they can say they heeded the voice of the people. If they disagree, they get to ignore what they hear, proceed on the path they originally intended, but still say everyone was “at the table” and that their decision was based on the input of the people they ignored.

It’s no surprise that the state board endorsed a proposal to consolidate the power to run our schools further away from the people whose schools they are. After all, that’s precisely what the State Board of Education is. In fact, the actions of the unelected state board in this case, as in other past cases, is a perfect example of why distant boards, only marginally connected to the people they purport to represent, typically don’t promote anybody’s thriving or prospering, and why we need to oppose and reject any effort to rob local citizens and parents of the power to control the schools where their children spend their days.

If our representatives in Montpelier elect to usurp our authority over our own schools, we should remember that the next time it’s our turn to elect them.

The bill as written allows towns to decide to consolidate, unless they don’t want to consolidate, in which case they will be forced to consolidate by a state “design team.” Has that duplicitous sham become Vermont’s new standard of democracy and “equity”? Is that what now passes for government by consent of the governed?

Here’s a proposal. Let each town vote to decide whether or not it wants to disband its local board and consolidate with another town or towns. In other words, let the power to decide be more than a hypocritical pretense.

If the Legislature and governor enact the bill as written and refuse to allow us to decide how we want to govern our schools, let every select board and school board vote to instruct their town treasurers to withhold the state portion of the revenue they collect. Then our representatives in Montpelier can decide which of us they want to arrest.

I realize that’s a radical suggestion, and most likely illegal, but it’s no more radical and ought to be no more illegal than wresting control of our community schools from the communities and parents whose children attend them.

I am no radical. But defiance and outrage are the fruit of the governmental arrogance that appears to be coming our way.

Comments

  1. Dave Bellini :

    It all started with Act 60. Many liberals WANTED to get the state more involved. They had to make things “fair” after all.
    The state is playing a larger and larger role in everything. A complete take over was bound to happen. Coming soon: A statewide teacher’s contract.

  2. Dave, I’m going to tie “If by equity, you mean how much money each school has available to spend, then” (by the oped author) and your statement together as they both point to either an ignorance of our recent history or a deliberate misstatement of what is happening today.

    And I’m not a fan of district consolidation.

    What is meant by “equity” in the context of H.883 and today’s district consolidation debate is in reference to “the quality and variety of educational opportunities available to students throughout the State”. One can find this right at the beginning of the bill (current proposal: http://www2.leg.state.vt.us/CommitteeDocs/House%20Ways%20and%20Means/Bills/H.883/4-11-2014~Donna%20Russo-Savage~H.883~H.883%20Ways%20and%20Means%20Strike%20All%20Draft%204.1.pdf)

    The equity of financial access has already been addressed quite well by the Act 60/68 combination and that view is as far as I can tell the predominant one.

    Act 60, of course, did not come about due to some grand liberal conspiracy. The concept of equalizing access to education funding had been around under several names since around 1960 (actually the first attempt at a statewide property tax dates to 1890). Just prior to Act 60 was the “Foundation” plan that was supposed to make up for the differences between towns regarding ability to raise money through the property tax.

    Quite predictably legislators and governors saw fit to save themselves from raising taxes by not properly funding the equalization fund, and that is where Act 60 came from.

    It was not difficult to find a local school in Vermont that could not afford to fix a leaky roof, provide for basic educational materials and other school needs (although I do understand on a personal level it took some work to find an individual willing to take point).

    The reality is that Act 60/68 saved the Vermont legislators and governors from themselves – it took the raising of revenue (taxes) away from their centralized hands and placed that authority directly in the those closest to the schools.

    Oh, Dave, my anecdotal experience tells me that a majority of local school board members would like to see a statewide teachers’ contract.

    • Howard Ires :

      Our local school certainly doesn’t want a statewide teachers contract! This will only increase the cost of education across the state. Every Vermont school is different, why should the contracts be the same?

      Thank you Peter for the excellent commentary. Putting governance further away from our schools and citizens is NOT going to improve our school system and is NOT going to save money, it is just going to consolidate power in Montepelier and screw up our schools. I am embarrassed that the Democratic party has come up with this idea, I’m ready to change my affiliation…

  3. Elinor Osborn :

    Well said Peter and Howard. Statewide teacher contracts will increase cost. They should reflect the cost of living in their communities which are far different. Bureaucracy farther removed becomes more out of touch and more autocratic–not the Vermont I want to live in.

  4. Janice Prindle :

    I can’t imagine why anyone would want consolidation or a statewide teachers contract (I say this as a retired teacher). I understand the school boards’ association and the teachers’ association have both signed on to this, but how eagerly is another matter. The only group I know of that was actively calling for it was the Campaign for Vermont, a business group selling itself as a citizens’ group (at least on their TV ads). I applaud Peter’s suggestion — as a second resort, my preferred option being to scrap this consolidation idea altogether. Nothing prevents schools now from choosing to consolidate if they so choose, or from working together cooperatively to save money or improve their schools in all sorts of ways. We don’t need mandated consolidation, loss of local control, school closings, rising transportation costs and the burden on children and parents that longer bus routes would entail, and eventually, either statewide teacher strikes or massive cop-outs when class sizes start to resemble big city schools and our educational track record follows suit. We don’t need more state-imposed curricula and standardized testing that enriches tech companies and textbook publishers, that turns its back on the concept of a liberal education. I think the most important thing you said, Peter, is “I’m tired of empty rhetoric masking decisions that every day impede efforts to improve our schools by the people who are actually in our schools.” That is the single biggest problem here.

  5. Joanne Esau :

    ?? regarding staff in schools which have remained union free by choice.. When non union schools are rolled into a District salary scale (achieved in part by union negotiations)… will the staff be required to pay 85% of the union dues as stipulated by VT Law ? Will the school district consolidation plan result in the Union being able to collect dues from every teacher/support staff in the state ?

  6. Cathy L. Berry :

    Vermont is held up as an example of localization, it works, let us continue to be an example of citizens being responsible for themselves, their food, their education, their government…..

    well written piece!

  7. Helen Keith :

    Keep the commentary coming – thank you.

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