A Secretary of Ed? Shumlin would appoint the Ed chief if new bill passes

House Education Committee Chairwoman Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, said the State Board of Education would play an advisory role under the new structure. Photo by Josh Larkin.

The House Education Committee is considering a bill that would allow the governor to appoint Vermont’s top education official. Gov. Peter Shumlin is a proponent of the change.

Under the plan, which is still under discussion and has not yet been drafted into legislation, the Department of Education would become an Agency, and the chief officer of that governmental entity would become part of the governor’s cabinet.

Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, confirmed today that her committee is considering new options for education leadership in Vermont. Donovan said the State Board of Education, which now has the authority to set and oversee regulations and appoint the Department Commissioner, would play an advisory role.

Donovan expects the Committee will weigh the implications of changing the education governance structure when they return from the Town Meeting Day break next week. A public hearing on the matter is scheduled for 5 to 7:30 p.m. March 9.

Critics, including a member of the State Board of Education, say the power shift from the State Board of Education to the governor’s office will politicize the role; backers say education shouldn’t be treated any differently than the Department of Public Service or the Agency of Natural Resources, both of which have hand-picked top officials.

I think it would be helpful to have that department be accountable to elected officials. Anyone who thinks the office isn’t politicized now, isn’t paying attention. These are all political officials.”
~ Speaker Shap Smith

“Education is our most important obligation in a democratic society,” Shumlin said in a phone interview Tuesday night. “It’s important for the governor to be held accountable for education quality and cost. Under the current system, governors don’t have a commissioner or secretary they appoint, therefore the education system is on its own.”

Shumlin said whether the title is secretary or commissioner, he believes the governor should have the authority to fill the position. He said a handpicked gubernatorial official wouldn’t be any more politicized than appointments for the Agency of Natural Resources, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development or the Public Service Board.

“Why is this one different?” Shumlin asked.

Shumlin said the education chief can make “a real difference” policy wise.

“I think it’s an important area where the governor should be able to have someone (in the Cabinet) and have total confidence (in that person),” Shumlin said.

But given the strength of school boards in Vermont, wouldn’t an appointee’s authority be limited? “You can argue that regardless who (or how an official) is appointed,” Shumlin said.

Shumlin said he would consider the current commissioner, Armando Vilaseca, for the new role. “It’s not about Armando,” the governor said.

House Speaker Shap Smith supports placing the ed chief in the governor’s Cabinet.

“We don’t necessarily have control over education policy,” Smith said. “I think it would be helpful to have that department be accountable to elected officials. Anyone who thinks the office isn’t politicized now, isn’t paying attention. These are all political officials.”

Jill Remick, the communications director for the Department of Education, said the real decision-making authority lies with local school boards. “Be careful what you wish for,” Remick said. “The state board is concerned about political appointments. The question is, without a state board, would popular ideas happen quicker without the benefit of a board and commissioner?”

Donovan said the Douglas administration politicized the Department by labeling school board members and teachers “special interests,” and she said, he harangued the public about how much the system cost taxpayers.

Stephan Morse, a member of the Board and former House Speaker, doesn’t support the change. He said after serving on the Board for two years, he thinks the system works best with a board-appointed commissioner, in part because the selection is made by a group of people who are geographically representative of the state. The board also maintains a level of accessibility to teachers, students, parents and taxpayers.

“The Vermont system is unique compared to other states,” Morse said. “If you put it under an agency structure, you could have a new governor every two years, and a new commissioner or secretary every two years, and you would lose consistency in education policy that way.”

Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, says in other states the gubernatorial appointees for the commissioner or secretary are more often subject to political whims. About half of all ed chiefs nationwide are appointed by a board. Welburn said if a governor doesn’t see results and needs a scapegoat, then that person can become a political target.

“Statistically the highest turnover among commissioners is among those who are appointed by governors,” Welburn said.

Anne Galloway

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  • In case anybody has ever had any doubts about my claim regarding Montpelier’s desire to kill off local school boards because we (the local school boards) are inconvenient … here’s the pudding laden with proof: ‘“We don’t necessarily have control over education policy,” Smith said.’

    The point to start with is that statement is a blatant lie, and and I use the phrase ‘blatant lie’ because Smith knows that statement is not true. He knows this because he helps appoint the members of the Vermont House Education Committee – the legislators who help form the recommendations that end up in Vermont’s education law: Title 16 of Vermont statutes (a really, really big Title by the way).

    The follow up is: why would the Vermont Speaker of the House blatantly lie about this? All you need to do is review the trends in education law at the national and state level to see: forced consolidation away from local school districts, local control and local input.

    Simply put: local school boards are inconvenient because we think for ourselves and don’t do the obsequious bowing to the state government.

    And Shumlin – if you wanted such a direct say in the day to day runnings of the school system, you should have skipped the gubernatorial debates and run for school board.

    Make no mistake – this push to centralize control over our kids lives (yes folks, they spend a lot of time in school) is being proposed for the exact same reasons that Gov Walker of Wisconsin is busy trying to do away with unions – legislative inconvenience.

    Shumlin – please do not return to a war against local school boards.


    The board of ed and the commissioner are too removed from public accountability. Currently Vermont has an appointed board, (with several members whose term will outlast the elected governor who appointed them) they in turn, appoint a commissioner (who often will outlast the elected governor and many legislators) without real input from any elected officials. This unelected board and commissioner will administer the single largest state government fund. They will create regulations to interpret legislation and the only way the people can have a say is by passing new laws. This is too unwieldy compared to electing a new governor who will appoint/fire cabinet members.

    • Exactly why do you find the current system unwieldy?

      Why should the governor control the education agenda?

      Why shouldn’t the education commissioner be in office longer than the governor or legislators?

      Why shouldn’t state school board members be in office longer than the governor or legislators?

      The governor and legislature are responsible for appointing the state board of education – isn’t that enough accountability to the centralized powers?

      What are the results you expect to see by coagulating more power over our in the Governor and General Assembly?

      How will this save any money?

      How will this improve educational offerings offered to our students?

      How will this improve educational outcomes?

      Which of the claimed positives cannot be accomplished by either the current system or actual DECENTRALIZATION? And why?

  • David Schoales

    Why is there so much fear, or misunderstanding, of democracy? Having schools overseen by locally elected citizens is the best possible system. Experience shows that the more control you give the state, the more it costs, with no improvement in anyone’s performance. Ask any school administrator.
    Making the state board and commissioner more political will not help schools. Is there something in the air in Montpelier that makes people think they are smarter than the folks who elected them?

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