Education Recap 2012: Secretary of ed, school consolidation, test scores, university restructuring at center of reforms

Debevoise Hall on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. VTD/Josh Larkin

Debevoise Hall on the Vermont Law School campus in South Royalton. VTD/Josh Larkin

Big changes are afoot in the realm of education. Three main factors — less fortuitous economic times, global competition for jobs and the advent of online classes — are having an impact on Vermont’s public schools and post-secondary education.

There are also new political winds in the air. Gov. Peter Shumlin asked the Legislature last year to make the head of education a part of his cabinet. Previous governors, including Republican Jim Douglas, sought the same goal — to transform the Department of Education, which has fewer than 200 employees — into a full-blown agency, answerable to the governor.

Shumlin is expected to announce his selection for secretary this week. Armando Vilaseca, the current commissioner, is among the candidates.

There is talk of consolidating Vermont’s small school districts again (a perennial conversation that has been going on for decades in Vermont) as a way of saving on administrative and infrastructure costs as school enrollments continue to fall. (The statewide student count has dropped by 15,000 since the high-water mark of 104,000 in 1997.) Meanwhile, costs continue to rise.

School spending will increase by 4.8 percent according to Agency of Education estimates in 2013, and property tax rates are set to go up 5 cents this year per $100 of real estate value. Shumlin has asked schools to keep spending increase levels at 2.2 percent (the rate of inflation) even as health insurance rates are set to increase by 14 percent and other costs rise above the rate of inflation, including utility costs and negotiated contract increases for employees.

Legislative changes likely, Campaign for Vermont weighs in

Leaders of the House and Senate Education committees plan to take up the unpopular subject of school mergers this legislative session.

Previous attempts to consolidate school districts have been a nonstarter. 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, neither has spurred consolidation in districts statewide.

Outside pressure has already been brought to bear on lawmakers. Campaign for Vermont, a self-described “nonpartisan” advocacy group, has called for the replacement of Vermont’s 64 supervisory unions with 15 “Education Districts,” an idea that was first proposed in 2006 by Richard Cate, the former education commissioner who served during Republican Gov. Jim Douglas’ tenure in office.

View of a school bus through a rainy window.

View of a school bus through a rainy window.

In this scenario, the current level of local control and the state’s role would both diminish. Instead, the new education districts would be responsible for setting budgets and collecting the statewide property tax, for example.

The group envisions stripping the state of its role as primary distributor of property tax revenue to schools. Instead, each “Education District” would be charged with this task, and the statewide property tax would be used only to even out any imbalances that emerge across districts.

The campaign recommends expanding school choice and de-coupling the state’s income sensitivity program from property tax rates to “enhance transparency” about the program’s expenditures. The plan also calls for a teacher and principal evaluation system and recommends raising teacher salaries by an average of 20 percent for those who make the grade.

~Reporting by Alicia Freese

Picus report: Vermont’s system is equitable

Vermont’s controversial statewide property tax system, which was initially enacted in 1996, was reviewed by an outside consulting firm last year. Act 60 and 68 essentially evened the playing field between poor and rich school districts in the state and required towns to collect a statewide property tax for education. It’s the only system of its kind in the United States.

Lawrence Picus, a nationally respected consultant, told lawmakers last session that the state’s school funding mechanism is doing what it was designed to do – it is ensuring that school districts are equitably financed.

Widening disparities in funding for schools based on the relative property wealth of individual communities have largely disappeared, Picus told legislators.

No other state in the country has a more equitable system of education financing, Picus said. There is a correlation, he said, between equalized funding and the decline in variation in student achievement in reading and math, based on the relative poverty or wealth of a given school district.

Picus’ 281-page draft report analyzed data and provided case studies of five schools in Vermont that significantly improved student test scores.

Vermont is near the top of the national charts on a number of measures. The state has the third highest per pupil spending ratio in the nation ($17,447 a student, while the national average is $10,826). The state has the smallest school districts – with 299 students on average — in the country (the national average is 3,213). Student enrollments have declined by 18.1 percent over the last decade, faster than any other state except North Dakota. In 1999, Vermont had 104,559 students; we now have 85,635.

Meanwhile, teacher and administrative hiring has continued to increase. (Wages for teachers, by the way, are below average.) Our student-to-teacher ratio, 9.8 to 1 is the lowest nationally (we vie with Wyoming on that score), and the student to administrator ratio is the third lowest, 184.1 to 1.

Overall expenditures for primary and secondary public education have increased by 83.7 percent between fiscal year 2001 and fiscal year 2011. The Picus report pins the blame on declining enrollments and reduced student-to-teacher and staff ratios.

Though the state is ranked high nationally on standardized tests, the Picus report shows that scores for Vermont students aren’t as high compared with their New England counterparts. The report suggests that school districts already have the financial and human resources in place to dramatically improve student performance, and Picus points out five examples of schools that have found ways to create a collaborative approach to teaching and have responded quickly to student academic needs as they arise.

School consolidation, Picus said, is not a “silver bullet for savings.” The local connection to schools is deeply rooted in the culture of Vermont, he said, and bigger districts can create more distance between a community and its school. He recommended looking at supervisory union savings through shared contracts for transportation, curriculum development and other services school districts can share.

~Reporting by Anne Galloway

Test scores stagnate

Vermont’s most recent test results indicate that students have made few positive gains on reading assessments over a 10-year period. The 2011 New England Common Assessment Program results, and the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress scores show no progress in reading mastery for about 27 percent of Vermont students who are either “partially” or “substantially below” proficiency.

The scores are consistent with previous national and state assessments.

The NECAP is given each year to approximately 44,000 Vermont students in grades 3 through 8. About a quarter of children do not become capable readers by fourth grade. In 2011, the reading proficiency gap narrowed to 20 percent for eighth-graders, but then widened again for 11th-graders, who are also given the NECAP, to 27 percent.

On the NAEP — often called The Nation’s Report Card — the scores, as well as the percentages of successful vs. failing students, are at the same level they were when the tests were first reported in 2002. The percentage of non-reading students remains at 27 percent, and 32 percent of students perform at a “basic” reading level, which means “partial mastery.” (NAEP results are based on a random sample of students at a selection of schools chosen as representative of the state.)

Brian Townsend, Armando Vilaseca and Peter Shumlin

Left to right, Brian Townsend, IT manager for the Vermont Department of Education, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca and Gov. Peter Shumlin talk with reporters about a new $5 million education technology grant. VTD File Photo

Vermont’s science scores are also stagnant. Recent NECAP scores show the percent of fourth-graders scoring at proficient or higher levels remains level, while eighth-graders notched a 1 percent increase, and 11th-graders a 2 percent increase.

Among fourth-graders, 36 percent of low-income students were proficient or higher in the sciences, compared to 65 percent of their wealthier schoolmates. Only 16 percent of low-income eighth-graders were proficient or higher, compared to 39 percent of their fellow students, and in the 11th grade, 15 percent of those students were proficient or higher compared to 41 percent of their counterparts.

Math scores were lower than educators hoped this year. Only 36 percent of 11th graders were proficient in math, and 65 percent of third through eighth graders were proficient.

In response to the disappointing results, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Armando Vilaseca, commissioner of the Department of Education, announced a plan to initiate new algebra and geometry requirements.

~Reporting by Kate Robinson and Anne Galloway

Seventy-five percent of schools fail to met federal standard

As a result of the NECAP scores, nearly three-quarters of Vermont’s schools — 198 in all — did not meet the standards for adequate yearly progress (AYP) this year under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Twenty-three schools found themselves on the list for the first time.

According to the Vermont Department of Education, a school makes AYP by meeting targets set by the state as required by NCLB. In Vermont, these targets increase every three years with the goal of 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

According to the Department of Education, 2011 marked the final target increase (before the 100 percent proficiency goal) in Vermont. As a result, there was a significant increase in the number of schools that did not make AYP.

Earlier this year, Vermont sought a waiver from the federal Department of Education to gain some flexibility in meeting the NCLB goals, but the state Board of Education abandoned the effort when it was discovered the state would still be required to do annual standardized testing.

Vermont will adopt Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English language arts and literacy by 2015. The standards, which have been adopted by 44 other states, is designed to provide better multiple measures of student achievement. The new system will replace the NECAP tests now given to Vermont students in math, reading, writing, and science each year.

~Reporting by Andrew Nemethy

UVM selects new president

In June, the governor’s higher education advisory group released a report recommending, among other changes, that UVM double the size of its engineering school, tweak its tuition structure, and shake up the ratio of public to private trustees, and that the state appropriate funds to specific programs rather than the university’s general fund.

Weeks later, the University of Vermont announced the selection of E. Thomas Sullivan as its 26th president on July 15. Sullivan, who was senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Minnesota for the last eight years, is an attorney and authority on antitrust law and complex litigation. Sullivan was dean of the University of Minnesota Law School from 1995 to 2002. He has written 10 books, served as a consultant to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Supreme Court nominations, and worked with the Senate Commerce Committee on mergers.

Sullivan comes to UVM at a time when the universities face “new economic realities.” He has said that university presidents will have to lead “disciplined discussion and resulting actions concerning cost containment, cost avoidance, and prudent budget cutting.”

University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan. Photo courtesy of University Communications

University of Vermont President Tom Sullivan. Photo courtesy of University Communications

Last month Shumlin and Sullivan announced a plan to restructure the relationship between the state and its only public university. John Bramley, one-time interim UVM president and longtime UVM faculty member, will oversee the organizational reforms.

Higher education costs have grown faster than health care, Bramley told trustees last summer, exceeding families’ ability to pay. Jobs are harder to come by, and he said, “the wisdom of investing in a college education is increasingly in question.”

The university, he said, “won’t be able to grow our way out of the problem.”

The fact that the current in-state discount is provided regardless of merit, income, need or area of study is defined by the advisory committee as “a non-strategic use of limited public funds.” The legislative intent, the report asserts, was to subsidize the difference between the cost and the discount, but “this has not happened.” Instead, UVM last year covered the “gap” by providing $16 million from the general fund to subsidize Vermonters with “revenues generated by out-of-state tuition, an unsustainable practice.”

One of the recommendations discussed with the governor at a June 22 press conference, suggests targeted appropriations and other forms of state support for agriculture, health, natural resources and science, technology, engineering and math programs.

Other higher ed institutions in Vermont are also restructuring.

Union Institute & University which operates two satellite low-residency programs in Vermont is shutting down its Montpelier operation (it will continue to offer residencies in Brattleboro).

Vermont Law School is undergoing an ambitious reorganization in the face of a $3.3 million budget gap in July. The deficit is the result of declining enrollments. Like other law schools around the country, VLS is coping with major shifts in legal education as the economy contracts and law school grads struggle to find work.

Last month it offered voluntary retirement packages to 98 staff employees. The school may offer similar voluntary buyouts to its 61 full-time faculty members, though it hasn’t done so yet. It will also overhaul its curriculum, cutting some programs and expanding others. School administrators also can’t rule out mandatory employee layoffs next year, though those decisions will only be finalized in the spring. Vermont Law School employs 76 part-time adjunct professors and 159 full-time staffers.

~Reporting by Greg Guma

Education department elevated to agency

Candidates for Secretary of Education position come from divergent backgrounds

Shumlin: Cabinet level position gives governors a stake in education

Education would come under governor’s purview if House bill passes

Shumlin proposes to make algebra and geometry mandatory for high school students

~Reporting by Anne Galloway

School consolidation

Legislative preview: Education committees to review pre-K and school consolidation again

Campaign for Vermont says state could save $160 million through consolidation of supervisory unions

Property taxes to go up by as much as 5 cents unless school districts curb spending

Report: Education financing system is equitable

Test scores

Science scores remain flat

75 percent of schools fail to meet federal standards

Vermont kids rank high in health and education, poverty and food insecurity rates on the rise

Vermont reading test rates stagnate

Federal mandates

Under federal law, Vermont schools cope with inexorable march toward near universal failure

School lunch programs get reprieve from new federal nutrition rules

Vermont breaks with the federal government on education reform

$5 million grant will streamline education data for state

Private schools, a public dilemma

Post-secondary education

UVM president stresses partnership and economic impacts with business leaders

Bramley charged with implementing state-UVM partnership plan

Sullivan begins work as UVM president with transparency pledge

UVM: Private partnerships and public investments

UVM: Research and tuition changes

UVM trustees weigh the price of staying competitive

UVM trustees choose Minnesota provost as next president

Vermont Law School’s restructuring welcomed as prudent measure

Union Institute & University to leave Montpelier

Career readiness certificate puts workers at the head of the line

Anne Galloway

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  • Why is what “Campaign for Vermont” says newsworthy?

  • Julie Hansen

    Because they are well-funded and their position is in line with the “Opportunity to Learn” recommendations presented in the final report of the Education Transformation Policy Commission,submitted to the Board in 2009. Everyone who cares about eduction in Vermont should review the report carefully.

  • Stu Lindberg

    There is nothing voluntary about ACT 153. It is full of mandates such as forcibly moving financial services, transportation and special education to the supervisory unions. The “incentives” are grants (money being taken from our other pockets. This legislation is about political power and removal of local control. It has nothing to do with saving money. It could save money but the devil is in the details. The S.U. budgets now often dwarf the budgets of the local schools.

  • My question ‘Why is what “Campaign for Vermont” says newsworthy?’ was no meant to be rhetorical – I’m honestly wondering why that group or whatever it is is worthy of special mention in the above article – especially giving them credit for applying “outside pressure”.

    The major problem with the above article is nobody bothered to go out in the field and talk to actual school board members and principals and superintendents and teachers and students – and that is also the major problem with how the state’s legislature is handling all this.

    But back to my definitely not rhetorical question: Why is what “Campaign for Vermont” says newsworthy?

  • Julie Hansen

    Boy, I don’t want to drag this out because the we should stay focused on the upcoming changes in education law, but with regard to going out into the field, the legislature took testimony from many superintendents and members of the school boards association and the union in the process of writing Act 153. I was there for a number of them.

    “Campaign for Vermont” is the voice of decisions already made.

    • How many superintendents? How many school board members (not reps from the VSBA)? How many parents? How many students?

  • Julie Hansen

    Rama, I understand your point. It was reps from VSB and not local board members. And I agree with you. I encouraged my local board to participate, but they chose not to pursue that option. My point is that it is moot. decisions have been written into law and more will be. We need to be active now, during this legislative session.

    For the record and in the interest of full disclosure I am the founding director of an independent school. I have strong beliefs about educating our children and those often differ from the current views of the public section. However, I do believe that those who want to preserve public education need to become involved in a very public way.

    It means getting to Montpelier and participating in the process.

  • Julie – I’m not trying to start an argument with you, and you might find what follows a bit condescending … but this discussion is for many other folks as well as us.

    I literally could not agree more with “those who want to preserve public education need to become involved in a very public way”. I do believe, however, that a huge part of the problem is we’re required to get to Montpelier and participate in the highly centralized legislative process.

    The Legislators and Governor like having the Vermont School Boards Association, Vermont Superintendents Association, Vermont Principals Association and Vermont NEA around because the involved lawmakers can go to those groups and believe they’ve been discussing the needs and desires of the individual group constituencies. I know this because I’ve talked with and listened to enough folks involved in the state level law making process.

    In general the legislative committees feel they’ve done their public outreach on educational issues when they have discussed issues with the representatives of each of those four associations.

    The problem arises because the representatives of each group more often than not have to frame their discussions in terms of the compromises that have been made to reach some agreement or consensus within a particular group. What gets left off the table is the incredible complexity that actually exists in our individual schools and more so at the individual student level.

    These are just some of the relationships that develop in a natural manner in any successful school environment (in no particular order): student to student; student to teacher; student to other in school staff; student to principal; student to community; teacher to teacher; teacher to other staff; teacher to principal; teacher to superintendent; teacher to school board; teacher to parent; teacher to community; principal to superintendent; principal to school board; principal to community; superintendent to school board; superintendent to community; school to community; parents to school and on and on. I haven’t even touched on the process of learning that goes on and the wide varieties used to encourage and advance a student’s knowledge and abilities.

    I’m trying to illustrate a complexity that does not function well under centralized policy making and implementation. But Vermont’s legislature and governor have come to believe they (the Montpelier 181) can come up with reasonable, across the board mandates that directly interfere with every one of the mentioned relationships. And for those 181 to believe this is reasonable, they have to believe they’re getting all the input they need from four state level organizations (VSBA, VSA, VSPA, Vt NEA) that by nature have to homogenize THEIR statements.

    I believe it’s the responsibility of the legislators to get out from under the dome so they can hear the myriad of different tales each organizational story is made up of – but I don’t see that happening any time soon. (Homogenized squared?)

    I’m not opposed to any of the four organizations I mentioned – for that matter I like the folks I’ve had personal interaction with in each one of them. I think each organization fulfills and important role (I’m an active board member of the VSBA) – none of the above should be consider a shot at any of them. This isn’t a knock against any particular legislator – I’m willing to accept the precept that we’re all trying for the same goal: the best educational experience possible for every one of our primary and secondary students.

    But I do disagree with a process of law/policy making and implementation that can by it’s very nature only come up with the wrong answers.

    AS I’ve said before: Local control exists when people have immediate, direct and effective access to those who create and implement policy. Local control is the only reasonable tool that has a chance of addressing all these educational complexities. There is a place for state level educational law and policy – but it isn’t at the level that is currently being engaged in in Montpelier.

    And the Legislature and Governor have to move beyond the confines of Montpelier to truly appreciate this last concept. They can do it for businesses, right?

  • Julie Hansen

    I don’t disagree with you at all. (Nor do I feel that you are condescending to me, but I appreciate your sensitivity to the possibility). And I completely agree that it is difficult for the public to participate. Most of us have full time jobs that make it difficult to attend the hearings. Ideally, that’s why we have representative government, but it does not seem to be working very well with regard to the delivery of education.

    Hence, I urge people to meet regularly with their legislators and do what they can to make their voices heard in Montpelier.

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