Education would come under governor's purview, under House bill

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.

Anne Galloway

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6 Comments on "Education would be governor’s purview, under House bill"


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4 years 10 months ago

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
4 years 10 months ago

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
4 years 10 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 10 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 9 months ago
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… Read more »
4 years 9 months ago
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… Read more »
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