Education would be governor’s purview, under House bill

Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. VTD/Josh Larkin
Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. VTD/Josh Larkin

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.

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Anne Galloway

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  • Is it time to vote with our feet?

    North Bennington did when at town meeting those folks decided to take their elementary school from “public” to “independent” (find the link for “Check out our Independent School Investigatory Study Committee”) …

    Maybe Shumlin has managed to pull off what those who wish to do away with the public school system haven’t been able to accomplish … do away with the public school system.

  • John Stettner

    Putting the Governor at the top of education is not the answer, it’s just another “big government” mistake. The solution to most education problems is to “bring it home,” to return education to parents and local control. Keeping it local keeps it immediate and “in your face” rather than “somebody else’s responsibility. We’ve seen how well government has done with education and history shows how good education was when it was local.

  • gary gilbert

    The vote for passage in the house is expected to occur today. This is my analysis not that of any other house member.

    The concept of elevating the Commissioner of Education to the cabinet level position of Secretary and moving the Department to the status of an Agency is straight forward.

    The Secretary would have direct responsibility for the Agency just as a Secretary does for agriculture. The Secretary will be unable to control the actions of a local board any more than the Secretary of agriculture can control the behaviors of an individual farmer. It is expected that the state board will retain all its powers including setting educational policy and being responsible for school quality. The Agency, Secretary and Governor would be accountable for the success of our educational system. The public would know what the current educational goals were, how they were being addressed, and how the Agency/Governor/Secretary were working together on the issues.

    It is an idea whose time has come. Education quality is too important to be allowed to be treated as the ugly step-sister It is time for the State’s CEO to give Education his/her attention and to integrate it with the other administrative agencies. An analysis of the existing roles and responsibilities, and the changes contemplated by this proposal, are examined in the following sections.


    Current Law T 16 211: State Board appoints subject to approval of the Governor. In application, this means that the Governor chooses the person he/she wants as he/she has veto over any person nominated. The only requirement is to have special training and experience in educational work. Some requirement similar to this would remain. A Commissioner not of the Governor’s choosing would be ineffectual, receive no gubernatorial support for initiatives and eventually driven to resign.

    Proposal: The Governor appoints subject to senate as other secretaries but from no fewer than three submitted by the state board. By the end of the second term a Governor will have replaced board members so it is his/her board. He/she will eventually get the person and board he/she wishes. Under current law the board appears to be independent but will become the Governor’s creation.

    State Board

    Current Law 161 All members ( 9 with 2 student members – one not voting.) appointed by Governor with consent of senate to 6 yr terms biennially in February…vacancies also appointed.

    Proposal: 3 year terms with reappointment to up to three terms. The quality of appointments may be of higher quality as the Governor will require an efficient board as their success or failures will be attributed to his/her selection.


    Current Law 164(4) Biennially, or as required by Governor, prepare budget for DOE. In application, the Department prepares a budget for the Board and submits it to the Governor after the Governor has made his preferences known i.e. Governor determined staffing levels to a given dollar amount or for a specific program. It is the Governor’s recommend that goes to the legislature money committees.

    Proposal; The Secretary would be responsible for preparing and presenting the budget as part of the administrations budget proposal to the legislature. It would be the Governor’s budget for which he/she would be accountable. There is also the possibility that the budget would receive greater legislative oversight similar to what occurs in other areas of government. The Governor would be responsible for managing the funds, the Agency, and the results of the Agency. A Governor could not take the position that he/she had no control over spending, quality, or that failure is someone else’s responsibility.

    Secretary as cabinet member

    Current law: the Commissioner is invited by the Governor to attend cabinet meetings. The Department is an independent Agency of government and the Governor can not tell the Commissioner what to do but can control resources such as funding and staffing levels even if a position is paid by federal funds. The Ed Department cooperates with the agencies of government with memorandums of understanding that describe where, how, and to what degree they will coordinate duties, responsibilities and financial resources. This means that no one is in charge and no one Agency is responsible for the outcomes. Silos are intact. Money allocated to a need can not be adequately tracked and program success evaluated. The Commissioner must serve two masters- one with the bully pulpit and one that meets just once a month.

    Proposal: The Secretary would be a member of the Governor’s Cabinet and have the same standing as other agencies. Cooperation would be forced as the Governor would be able to tell each Secretary when, in his/her best judgment, cooperation is necessary to address a problem in an efficient manner. Human Services and Education would sit at the same table, develop budgets that reflect their shared responsibilities, report to and be accountable to the Governor for their results. And the Governor would be accountable to the public for progress, and to the state board which has a legislated public voice and are charged with the responsibility to establish the quality standards for Vermont education. (Human services expend 42% of state appropriations. Education is 33%. However much of the ed expenditure is dollars voted ant the local level and collected at the state level and the Departments role simply to distribute the voted funds to the local districts and not in the control of the Department or the administration.) In other words 1.98 billion and 1.55 billion are big numbers.

    Board Powers

    Current: Lots – leave all operations the same except operation of the Department/Agency and constructing a suggested budget.. Retain: establish advisory commissions; enter into agreements with government entities, foundations etc; examine appeals; make regulations concerning attendance, deportment, and records; make regulations; implement and update standards for student performance; graduation standards; adult education programs; approve independent schools; establish accounting procedures for districts and supervisory unions; ensure distance learning technologies; report yearly on the condition of education statewide and on a school by school basis; evaluate the equalizing effects of Vermont’s finance system and school quality standards; develop sample ballot language;

    Proposal: Remove developing the budget and direct control over the Agency which was already minimal. Add –review and evaluate education policy presented by the
    Governor and secretary, establish policies to guide the work of the agency, and engage local school board members and the broader education community. This gives the Board a legislative voice and a public role to hold the Agency and Governor accountable; Approvals, appeals, rule making, quality standards the policy stuff remains.

    Local Boards

    Current: responsible to their district members
    Proposal: No change in authority of local boards. The Secretary would have authority over the Agency, period. He/she would have no authority that the Commissioner does not already have unless the legislature chooses to change existing statutes.

    • Thanks, you have participated in the final politicization of our state’s education system. No longer will diversity of opinion be tolerated at the state board level, and no longer will the Department of Education at the direction of the state board be able to stand up as an independent voice against the temporary whims of legislators. It will instead be one big happy family of those who agree with the governor. The students never mattered one bit in this whole discussion.

      Mr. Gilbert, you conveniently leave out the political context this is all happening in: mandated consolidations through Section 9 of Act 153 (2010) and to be further solidified by Act 753 (2010). Let us not forget the big push currently coming down the pike with further mandated consolidations as you folks vote to reduce the number of supervisory unions from the current approximately 60 to 15 or 16.

      Won’t it be wonderful when Vermont’s students education becomes fodder for the political campaign trail? Won’t it be great to argue over state-wide policies regarding sex education/health classes, global warming/climate change, religious teaching and more … you know .. hot button topics?

      Screw you kids, the guv needs more powers.

      And I can’t wait to see what you folks sneak in under Section 7 of H.440 ( Technical changes – yeah, right – just like this isn’t a huge power grab intended to help consolidate our (temporarily) local schools.

  • From the above article: ‘[Vermont House Education Committee chair] Donovan explained to her colleagues. “… When secretary is at the table and the governor is responsible, goals can be established increasing outcomes for all Vermont kids.”’

    Think about this for a moment folks, Donovan is suggesting that the mere action of changing goals will automatically improve outcomes … and she is a major player in our state’s politics.

    For the record Donovan is absolutely wrong. The goals merely inform us as to where we want to go; but the actual outcomes are determined by the student, home and teachers. No amount of misdirection from the state will change the fact that in today’s understanding of differentiated instruction that education is a very individual thing, and those best able to deal with the individual needs are those closest to (not farthest from – such as the state government) the student.

    Local schools, local input and local governance matter for the students – but the state wants political control at any cost.

  • A cautionary tale regarding too much politics and our public education system: ‘”When I sit down with [Sen.] Lamar Alexander and [Rep.] John Kline what we’re talking about is so close,” he said, referring to a senior members of the Senate education committee and the chairman of the House education committee.

    But the politically charged atmosphere on Capitol Hill is hard to overcome. “We’ve never had education dragged into this vortex. Education has always been above it. Now we find ourselves sitting in a partisan firefight.”‘ (

    This is exactly what the Governor and General Assembly are pushing for right here in Vermont, and it doesn’t matter if that is their intent or not.