Shumlin: Cabinet-level position “gives governors a stake” in education

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.440. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

Gov. Peter Shumlin signs H.440. Photo by Taylor Dobbs

Gov. Peter Shumlin signed a bill on Thursday that moves the education system directly under the governor’s control.

The bill, H. 440, created a new cabinet position for the secretary of Education who will report to the governor. Under previous law, the commissioner answered to the State Board of Education which also set policy for the state agency.

Similar bills have come up before, but never made it through the legislative process, despite support from both parties. Former Gov.Jim Douglas testified in favor of the bill last year.

Shumlin said the legislation gives governors a stake in the state’s education system, which is essentially run by local school boards.

“I have long felt, as have many governors before me – both Republican and Democrat – that it’s very difficult as a governor to ultimately have a single voice that implements a vision for quality education when the governor does not have direct intervention or input on who the commissioner or secretary of Education might be.”

Critics of the bill said the State Board of Education served as a buffer for the political whims of elected officials. The bill reduces board member terms from six years to three. Members are selected by the governor. Shumlin said the new process would allow for more effective educational policy and hold governors accountable for that he said was the “most important obligation in a democratic society” – education.

“There was tremendous skepticism, tremendous fear that we were somehow politicizing a process that shouldn’t be politicized,” Shumlin said. “I say what we’re doing today is ensuring that we have accountability from the governor and the ability for the elected governor to care about educational quality by having a secretary, a full member of the cabinet, to ensure that that vision is being carried out.”

Stefan Morse, chair of the state board, said he is not worried about the politicization of the education system because the board retains its authority on education policy under the new law.

Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca said the bill would be good for Vermont’s schools.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to have the governor have a very, very strong voice in education, speaking with one voice,” he said. “I think in the past, with a state board of education and a commissioner that was not working under the governor may have led to some issues that may not have been unified.”

In January, the State Board of Education will present Shumlin with three secretary candidates and the governor will make the final selection.

Morse said the board is currently working on formulating educational priorities for Vermont, which will give the new secretary a checklist of what the board deems the most important educational issues in the state.

“We think that’s a healthy way to get the process started,” Morse said.

Lisa Ventriss, executive director of Vermont Business Roundtable, has been a proponent of quality early childhood education. Her organization produced a report in 2007 that showed the state needed strong leadership with a vision for education.

“This has been a long time coming,” Ventriss said.

Taylor Dobbs

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  • Call this “A bill to address the narcissistic needs of the governor and legislature” because this is not about education at all – it is obviously part of a recent political trends that will result in the elimination of local schools, local input and local boards in all but name.

    Don’t think so? H.440 has turned the state board into nothing more than an advisory committee that at the governor’s pleasure will be ignored and sidelined.

    To date NOBODY has been able to tell me how changing the semi-autonomous Department of Education into a governor owned Agency of Education will improve the educational input and output of our state’s primary and secondary school students.

    Shumlin will most definitely not get my vote for this year.

    Following is an email I sent to the Executive Director and Board of Directors of the Vermont School Boards Association:

    Good morning Steve Dale and the VSBA Board of Directors,

    The following is a public statement, and I intend to share the words and/or sentiment widely.

    I want to express my deep disappointment in the Vermont School Boards Association when it comes to advocating for and representing local boards before the legislature and public. I have found the VSBA’s efforts in these areas totally lacking.

    H.440 ( as signed in to law yesterday comes on the heels of Act 153 (2010): we have a bill centralizing governance of our primary and secondary education system within the governor’s office; and we have mandated consolidation of schools. Unfortunately this has been allowed to occur without any attempt at rallying board members or the public or even properly informing folks as to what the political trends are, the collective result of recent legislation and viable and more desirable alternatives.

    H.440 essentially does away with the state Board by removing any real function from that body. The governor is given his agency with a secretary who will answer to the governor and not the board the secretary will act as CEO for. While the law gives mouth time to the state board having policy setting authority the reality is that if the state board says blue and the governor says red – red will rule the day (after all who does the secretary work for).

    (For Shumlin’s comments regards who actually sets ed policy: … starts around 22:15)

    Act 153 (2010) is, of course, the bill that started the latest rounds of consolidation of our schools by taking some of the most important and expensive parts of our schools (staffing, curriculum as examples) and consolidating those items up to the supervisory union boards.

    It is beyond obvious at this point that the next step, consolidation of the supervisory unions, is coming soon. The subject of doing just this was even brought up by Shumlin in his budget address this year.

    Rationale thinking will tell anyone that elimination of local boards in everything but name is not far behind, and yet we still hear not a public peep from the VSBA.

    We have the governor running our public education system and we have mandated consolidation of our schools (yes – staff and curriculum are part of “schools”) and we will be seeing legislation to consolidate supervisory unions – all occurring as the VSBA fails to inform, rally, represent and advocate for the association’s membership.

    I hope in the future the VSBA will properly and adequately represent and advocate for the local boards who pay the dues (and salaries) of the VSBA,

    • Unfortunately you are closing the barn door after the horse has already left.

      • (What is it with us and horses anyway? We beat the dead ones, try to drag the live ones to the pond and make ’em drink, let them escape from the barn …. heck we even horse around.)

        The VSBA still has a valuable part to play in Vermont’s education system, and there are many horses still in the barn:

        1) Keeping an adequate number of supervisory unions so local schools can be the benefactors of high quality, personalized service (60 may be too few, but the state’s General Assembly and Governor appear wedded to the preconceived notion that 60 is way too many).

        2) Keeping budgetary decisions at the local town/city district level (yeah – you know the General Assembly and Governor would love to gain control over those decisions).

        3) Making sure that local districts are given adequate resources to tend to the multitude of mandates (most good, some bad) that are part and parcel of a public education system.

        4) Fighting to overturn Shumlin’s unilateral decision that he, not the state Board of Ed, will be the one actually in charge of our state’s educational policy.

        5) Making sure that local district boards retain their policy setting and oversight responsibilities.

        6) Setting up a better school board to school board communications arrangement.

        7) Increasing public awareness of the issues regarding our primary and secondary education system; what the boards are working on; and what the boards are saying.

        8) There’s more, but I’m out of time now.

  • Stuart Lindberg

    The VSBA has rolled over for Shumlin, The NEA and the legislature. Rama, your comments are 100 percent accurate.

    • Soojung Jang

      That is correct.

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