Legislative preview: Education committees to review pre-K and school consolidation (again) and dual enrollment programs

Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington.

Access to pre-K education, school consolidation, and dual enrollment programs will rank high on the legislative agenda for the 2013 session, according to chairs of House and Senate education committees.

Kevin Mullin, chair of the Senate Education Committee, and Rep. Joanna Donovan, chair of the House Education Committee, say persistent declining student enrollments and rising school expenditures will force both committees to return to the unpopular subject of school mergers.

Both Mullin and Donovan will take a second stab at designing dual enrollment legislation, and Mullin says he will introduce a bill to further expand access to preschools. Finding the funding for these measures is going to be tricky, Donovan said, in light of an uptick in property tax rates.

Universal access to Pre-K

Vermont preschools have been eligible for public funding since Act 62 was passed in 2007. In 2011, a cap that limited participation to 50 percent of 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds was repealed. Early education is not mandatory and school districts are not required to have preschools.

Mullin, a Republican from Rutland, plans to introduce a bill that would provide universal access to pre-kindergarten students by providing direct payments to providers for children from school districts without preschools.

Mullin has asked legislative counsel to examine whether the current system conflicts with the Vermont Supreme Court’s Brigham decision. “Everyone must pay for the program and not everyone can access it — I think it’s a constitutional problem,” Mullin said.

The Shumlin administration may propose an alternative measure that would scale up incentives for schools districts to start preschools, Mullin said. Under the current system, state funding is distributed based on student count, which is calculated based on a three-year average. This creates a three-year lag period, preventing new preschools from accessing funding upfront. The administration may suggest legislation that would “allow grants to those districts that would hold them harmless for the penalty of the lag time,” Mullin said.

“We passed a very big pre-K bill six years ago, but I think it’s time to revisit it,” Donovan said. The Democrat from Burlington alluded to complications that could crop up. “Money is always the question,” Donovan said. “We have to ask how we are going to pay for it.”

School consolidation

School consolidation will be one of the less palatable topics up for discussion, Mullin said.

“I know it’s a difficult decision but we are going to have to continue to talk about consolidation,” Mullin said. “There is going to have to be some consolidation at the supervisory union level and even at the school level if the trend doesn’t buck.”

Act 153, passed in 2010, offers incentives for voluntary school district mergers. Act 156, passed last session, expands those incentives and makes them available for school mergers even in supervisory unions where some towns have opted out. But so far, both pieces of legislation have been a nonstarter. Neither has spurred consolidation. Only one Regional Education District has been formed, between the school districts of Landgrove, Londonderry, Peru and Weston and the Flood Brook Union District. A bill to reduce the number of supervisory unions from 63 to 16 passed in the Senate last session but died in the House.

“The incentives aren’t real enough for the taxpayers to do it,” Mullin said.

Donovan said school mergers will also be an agenda item for the House education committee. She said she wants these decisions to be made at the local level, but “at some point there is going to be a tipping point and those decisions are going to have to be made.”

Title 16 refurbishment

Both committees will devote a substantial amount of time to a total rewrite of Title 16, which encompasses all education-related statutes. A lot of the work will involve doctoring language and making straightforward technical corrections, Mullin said. According to Donovan, there will also be some substantive decisions to make when it comes to carving out the respective roles of the State Board of Education and the newly created education agency.

Dual enrollment and early college programs

Last year, both the Senate and House education committees drafted bills to institute a statewide dual enrollment program in which 11th-graders and 12th-graders could receive both secondary and postsecondary credit for college courses. Another bill proposed developing early college program at all Vermont State College campuses. Both initiatives withered because lawmakers couldn’t agree on how to fund them. Donovan and Mullin said their committees plan to return to these issues in 2013, but disagreements about the funding source are sure to resurface.

Teacher evaluation tools

Donovan said the House committee will also take a look at the “teacher evaluation tool” developed by a task force including teachers, superintendents, principals, VNEA staff, and other stakeholders. “All education is dependent on having excellent teachers… we need to have a really good accountability system,” Donovan said.

The “tool” is a set of general guidelines that were drawn up at the behest of the Department of Education in order to qualify for funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009. Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals Association and a member of the task force, said he would be “very surprised” if the committee’s deliberation led to a bill proposing a statewide evaluation system.

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Alicia Freese

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  • Ann Manwaring

    What about outcomes? What about examining why, no matter what funding system we have, outcomes don’t seem to improve much? What about looking at our system from the bottom up instead of the top down? What about identifying schools that are improving outcomes, finding strategies that enable other schools to learn about and adopt those strategies? What about a school based data system that lets schools know how they are doing, what changes they might have to make to improve outcomes while at the same time informing State policy makers of education system improvements? What about recognizing that how money leaves the Education Fund is fundamentally a different question than how it gets into the Fund? What about evaluating how much of that money actually gets to the classroom where the real work of improving outcomes is done?

  • FY ’13 top ten spending (budget per equalized pupil) districts (source –

    5 are union high school districts (Bellows Free Academy, Essex Comm Ed Ctr, Oxbow, Brattleboro and Woodstock); 4 maintian elementary schools and belong to a union high school district (Waterville, Sherburne, Ferdinand and Reading); and one maintains a local K-12 system (Craftsbury).

    2 very large district (greater then 1,000 students) are in the top ten spending districts (Essex and Brattlebor); 2 large districts (between 500 and 1,000 students) are in the top ten (Bellows Free Academy and Woodstock); 2 medium (Oxbow and Craftsbury); and 4 small (less then 100 – Waterville, Sherburne, Fedinand and Reading).

    The top spending district is Bellows Free Academy (large) at $26,901; number two is Essex Comm Ed Ctr (very large) at $25,898.

  • Bill Mathis

    Regarding Ann Manwaring’s questions, Vermont ranks in the top five on virtually every educational or social indicator. If Vermont were a separate nation, we would rank about eighth in the world on math and science. As for gains, NAEP scores have consistently improved for every sub-group over the past 30 years — and VT is at the top of these scores. Vermont’s biggest education problem is the achievement gap between more affluent and less affluent students.

    • Tom Pelham

      Mr. Mathis

      I agree with you on the achievement gap between the affluent and less affluent, but not so sure on Vermont’s international ranking. Can you provide the source for your eighth ranking in this regard. Here’s an excerp from Campaign for Vermont’s recent education position paper profiling the standing of Vermont students relative to international measures that points in a different direction, including an article from the Atlantic ranking Vermont at 26th.

      “International Assessments and Rankings: In today’s flattening world economy, Vermont’s children must be prepared to compete with students from around the world. Jay Peak’s recent expansion in the Northeast Kingdom utilizing the EB-5 program, a federal program that provides visa’s to foreigners in return for capital investment, is just one example. Being near the top of the education list in the United States or New England does not translate to being prepared to compete with graduates from other nation’s school systems. To protect American and Vermont jobs—and to grow jobs here in Vermont — we need to provide our children a world-class education.

      Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA): International studies and assessments of the educational outcomes for 34 nations with membership in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which produce two-thirds of the world’s goods and services, find the United States far down the list of accomplishment. For example, of the OECD nations, the United States is the only nation where 25-34 year-olds do not have a higher level of education than 55-65 year olds. While U.S. levels of achievement are high for this older age group relative to the other nations, for the younger cohort, the other nations are now very competitive with the U.S. level of achievement.

      Further, in assessments of 15 year old students in the 65 OECD or OECD partner economies in the areas of Reading, Mathematics, and Science, the United States students ranked 17th, 31st, and 23rd respectively in comparison to the 15 year olds from the other nations.

      More about these international assessments can be found at these three sites:

      OECD Education Rankings – 2012 Update

      Lessons from PISA for the United States

      Highlights From PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context

      Further, using PISA data for countries and NAEP data for states, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek with teammates from Harvard and the University of Munich compared U.S. education data with international data and then rank order their findings. The top scoring nations were Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland respectively. Massachusetts ranked 16th behind Austria and Germany, followed by Minnesota ranked 19th behind Slovenia and Denmark and then Vermont ranked 26th behind the Slovak Republic. A review of this analysis can be found in the Atlantic magazine at the following link:

      Your Child Left Behind

      Campaign for Vermont embraces the view that our k-12 school system can better prepare our children to flourish in the world. We also recognize that a top performing school system will attract investment capital into Vermont to strengthen our economy and create more and better paying jobs. Employers want to be near good schools and a well educated and trained workforce. Consider this recent column published in the Wall Street journal by Brad Smith, General Counsel of Microsoft profiling the thousands of jobs at Microsoft going unfilled.

      How to Reduce America’s Talent Deficit