Shumlin touts education as "state's greatest economic development tool"; lawmakers chary of funding proposals

Gov. Peter Shumlin gives his inaugural speech. Photo by Roger Crowley

Gov. Peter Shumlin gives his inaugural speech. Photo by Roger Crowley

Editor's note: Alicia Freese and Anne Galloway contributed to this report.

Gov. Peter Shumlin was sworn in to his second term as Vermont’s 81st governor on Thursday.

After the full congressional delegation proceeded with pomp and ceremony to seats in the middle of the room, and after the governor’s predecessors — Republican Jim Douglas and Democrat Howard Dean — took their seats, Shumlin strode through a burst of exuberant applause to the front of the House Chamber.

Vermont Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Reiber swore in the governor. Shumlin then swore in Beth Pearce as state treasurer, Doug Hoffer as state auditor, Jim Condos as secretary of state and Bill Sorrell as attorney general — all of whom are Democrats.

The governor turned to the then-silent room of lawmakers, lobbyists, young legislative pages and military personnel to deliver his inaugural address. Unlike many such addresses that list a host of top priorities, Shumlin’s speech stuck to one point: improving the state’s education system to spawn a brighter economic future. To do that, he called for numerous investments.

“Our education system, from pre-kindergarten to higher education, is the state’s greatest economic development tool,” he proclaimed.

He noted that employers across the state need employees with educational groundings in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM.

He cited Brattleboro-based GS Precision, a manufacturer of aerospace and high-end machine parts, as an example of a company that is struggling to find qualified workers. GS Precision could grow its workforce by 25 percent this year if it could only find qualified engineers and tradesmen and women.

Chief Justice Paul Reiber swears in Gov. Peter Shumlin.  Photo by Roger Crowley

Chief Justice Paul Reiber swears in Gov. Peter Shumlin. Photo by Roger Crowley

“Our employers, from border to border, are eager to find workers with the right educational skills, and they have good money to pay,” Shumlin said, before launching into a long list of industries that need trained workers.

Vermont’s job market is seeing an enormous shift from traditional manufacturing jobs to a new, technology-driven segment. The state, he says, needs to catch up with the times and educate its students for tomorrow.

“I ask you: Is Vermont prepared to meet this challenge? Are we ready to harness this opportunity so critical to our future prosperity? The plain truth is: We are not.”

To turn this page, Shumlin proposed a multi-step plan. He called on the Legislature to help create a “universal early child education system.” He proposed “the largest single investment in early childhood education in Vermont’s history.” Shumlin vowed that his administration would help create funding opportunities for preschool programs in places that don’t have them. The programs would include startup funds for the first year. Most of the money, however, would go toward increasing subsidies for child care for low-income families, an initiative that has also been pushed by the American Federation of Teachers, which represents independent child-care employers in Vermont. (A bill allowing the childcare workers to unionize is up for consideration this session; a similar proposal failed last year.)

Shumlin called for programs to provide free lunch to low-income children and expand in-school health care. He also wants to double state funding for programs to enroll more high school students in college classes. He'd like high school students to be able to graduate with one year of college credits.

He proposed the “Vermont Strong Scholars Program,” which would pay for a college student’s senior year over a five-year period, but only if he or she attends a public institution and obtains a degree in STEM. If a student graduates with an associate's degree in one of these four fields, the student’s final term would be paid back over three years.

Shumlin also wants to increase the state’s appropriations to public colleges and universities by 3 percent. He said the spending hike would level the University of Vermont’s 3 percent tuition jump for Vermont students entering the institution next year.

Lastly, the governor called for the development of “personal learning plans that travel with each student from elementary through their senior year” and for a greater emphasis on career training. In part, Shumlin said, the state can achieve this goal by better taking advantage of the 17 career and technical education centers across Vermont. He also reiterated his stance that all ninth-graders should be required to take algebra and 10th-graders take geometry.

Armando Vilaseca, the newly named secretary of the Agency of Education, said he and the governor fully share this vision for reforms to Vermont's public school system. The state, he said, must strengthen the connection between secondary education and the world of work. Bolstering the career technical centers will be central to this effort.

“This is exactly where the governor and I and the Agency of education are looking to move together: the whole concepts of students graduating from high school with a focus on what they want to do in the future," Vilaseca said. "We’re not looking to produce worker bees for some particular industry, but we aren’t (right now) preparing students for some of the jobs that are out there.”

One of the biggest challenges, he said, is helping parents and students look at career technical centers as "viable options" for students who want to go on to college.

"Most people think the only way to get into a good school … is to go through a regular four years of high school, whereas tech centers are thought of in parents’ minds that they are vocational in nature," Vilaseca said. “How do we take those (technical) classes and bring them into high schools?”

Armando Vilaseca speaks at  the governor's press conference on Jan. 3, 2013. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Armando Vilaseca speaks at the governor's press conference on Jan. 3, 2013. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Bennington, chairs the House Commerce and Economic Development committee. Shumlin’s emphasis on workforce training and skill development mirrors his own commitment to workforce development as his key legislative priority, as he told VTDigger last month. 

“He’s absolutely on the right track,” Botzow said. “Vermont needs a well understood workforce development system that takes advantage of all of the great programs we’re already doing, connects them, enhances them, and makes hard choices when things aren’t working.”

“What’s new is the emphasis, the framing, and the understanding that for Vermont to succeed in the future, we have to compete on the labor market,” continued Botzow. “We have to be really, really good, and we have to grow our own workforce.”

The one area Shumlin’s education address was light on was funding proposals — although legislators expect those to come in his budget address on Jan. 24.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott echoed a sentiment many legislators voiced: “Where does all the money come from?”

With a projected budget deficit of $50 million to $70 million heading into fiscal year 2014, that is a question on many minds in Montpelier and across the state.

Rep. Kurt Wright, a Republican from Burlington, said he liked Shumlin's education proposals, but he was surprised by the governor's emphasis on one particular topic at a time when "we have so many things going on in Vermont, so many other issues." Wright ticked off a list of items Shumlin didn't address, including the budget gap, his ambitious single payer health care plan, the patient-directed death bill, gun issues and renewable energy initiatives.

Wright speculated that the governor was sticking with a popular subject that will resonate with the public rather than "wade into some of the more controversial issues that there are landmines on," such as keeping a lid on broad-based taxes and cutting social programs.

"There was so much that wasn’t said," Wright said. "I was a little taken aback by what wasn’t in the speech."

Don Turner. VTD/Josh Larkin

Don Turner. VTD/Josh Larkin

Don Turner, House Minority Leader, said the GOP caucus shares many of the goals the governor laid out such as early college and better utilization of tech education centers.

"Our initial concern is, it seems like a good vision, but how are we goingn to pay for?" Turner said. "It seems like the question we always have to ask."

Turner said Republicans are concerned about starting new programs at a time when the state is struggling to pay for existing human services programs and creating new mandates for small, budget-strapped schools that aren't going to have the means to provide the governor's proposed social work services.

Lawmakers also questioned the governor's one concrete funding proposal.

Redirecting the Earned Income Tax Credit

Vermont provides an extra 32 percent income tax credit on top of the federal earned income tax credit for low-income Vermonters. For the 2011 tax year, the state tax credit administered to eligible Vermonters totaled $25.7 million.

Shumlin told legislators, “We will redirect $17 million from the state’s earned income tax credit to make high quality child-care affordable to hardworking lower-income Vermonters.”

The new head of Senate Finance, Tim Ashe, D/P-Burlington, described the current credit as the “most successful anti-poverty program in U.S. history.”

He said the state should examine other programs besides the earned income tax credit to free up funds.

“I think the money is there,” he said. “But if the money is there in the existing system, it’s going to force hard choices.”

Some legislators were even less thrilled than Ashe with this proposal and the governor’s investment-heavy address.

"It seems like the governor is taking money from one group of low-income Vermonters and shifting it to another," Turner said. "That’s concerning us a little bit. What is the impact?"

“I find that really outrageous to take something that supports the working poor and use it to support the working poor in a different way,” said Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington. “He’s got a budget deficit. If he doesn’t tell us how he’s going to pay for it then it’s just a nice dream. I wonder if he took algebra when he was in ninth grade because his math is not adding up."

Not all legislators, however, found the earned income tax credit change “outrageous.”

Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, D-Quechee, said he believed the investments would reflect a simple cost shift.

“It’s going to be the same population, (and it’s) coming out of the same pot,” he said. “I think it’s going to be (net) neutral.”

Education officials enthusiastic about vision, cautious about details

The exclusive focus on education roused excitement among representatives of Vermont’s state colleges, teachers union and its school board and superintendents associations.

Dan Smith, a communications and government relations official with the Vermont State Colleges, said the 3 percent increase in public higher education support is a very welcome sign from the administration.

"It's the first time in four years we're looking at an increase," Smith said, "and it’s really meaningful for people in higher education.

The state gives UVM $40 million a year; the state colleges receive about $24 million and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation gets about $18 million a year to subsidize student grants. The 3 percent increase from the state would be roughly $2.5 million.

“The devil is in the details,” was a common refrain reiterated by union leaders and lawmakers alike in reference to dual enrollment, pre-K education, and Shumlin’s other reforms.

Darren Allen, spokesperson for the Vermont National Educators Association (NEA), favorably compared Shumlin’s education approach to that of his predecessor, Gov. Jim Douglas.

“The previous governor used his State of the State every year to bash public education," he said. "This governor talks about what a good system we have and focuses only on the ways to strengthen it.”

Steve Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Board Association, was equally enthusiastic. “We are quite elated that the governor is making education the centerpiece of his program,” Dale said.

Amid the high praise for the governor's innovative approach, however, plenty of questions are cropping up about the specifics. “The devil is in the details,” was a common refrain reiterated by union leaders and lawmakers alike in reference to dual enrollment, pre-K education, and Shumlin’s other reforms.

Shumlin restated his desire to require ninth-graders to take algebra and 10th-graders to take geometry. Dale said he agrees: “Certainly there needs to be a focus on math proficiency,” but, “the questions of how best to achieve that ought to be left to schools.”

Dale explained that he doesn’t view it as “an area of disagreement,” but he pointed out that rigid math requirements might conflict with the shift towards “personalized learning” that’s being promoted by both the VSBA and the Shumlin administration.

Shumlin also told the joint assembly that he wants to double funding for dual enrollment programs and authorize more early college programs that would allow students to simultaneously complete their senior year of high school and their first year of college. The governor called the level of enrollment in the state’s only early college program — currently 40 students — a “paltry number.”

Dale and Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said both of their associations support dual enrollment, but one phrase in particular, repeated twice by Shumlin, gave them pause. The governor called for a system in which “the money follows the student,” which, Francis explained, would seem to indicate that he wants public high schools to pay tuition for college courses taken by their students.

“That’s the beginning of a complicated discussion,” Dale said. Disputes about how to fund these programs snagged a dual enrollment bill during the last legislative session.

The governor wants to use state funding to provide free school lunches to low-income students who currently only qualify for “reduced price” lunches in the federal lunch program. Rep. Johanna Donovan, chair of the House Education Committee, and Rep. Sarah Buxton, also a member of the Education Committee, are pouncing on the governor’s support — they plan to introduce a bill for the program tomorrow.

Donovan said the elevation of the Department of Education to an agency was the key to enabling Shumlin to put his reform plan on the table. “I think we did the right thing when we enacted that legislation last year and I think this is a product of that.”

Shumlin’s proposal to expand access to pre-K — to fund the start-up costs for preschool programs during their first year — sparked particular excitement, but it won’t be the only proposal on the table. Sen. Kevin Mullin, the outgoing chair of the Senate Education Committee, says he has drafted a bill that may go further to introduce universal pre-K access. He plans to introduce it early in the session.

School health centers

Since Shumlin became Vermont’s governor in 2010, one of his top priorities — if not the top priority — has been to implement a single-payer, publicly financed health care system.

Now, he’s setting a new health care goal: to provide medical support for students.

To do that, Shumlin has asked Donna Mackenzie King, principal at Bennington’s Molly Stark Elementary School, to work with the state’s Human Services and Education secretaries.

"Ultimately, the achievement gap we have in Vermont and in our country is a poverty gap," Vilaseca said.

King used available resources to create a health center at her school that provides services for pediatric, psychological, nutritional, dental and preschool care. He wants her to help schools across the state do the same.

Education Secretary Vilaseca said the wrap around social services the Molly Stark school provides are necessary if the state wants to improve educational outcomes for low-income students.

"Ultimately, the achievement gap we have in Vermont and in our country is a poverty gap," Vilaseca said. "If you look at the number of kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch and look at percentage of kids who are not meeting the standards in many of our assessments it’s almost identical. To close the achievement gap and prepare kids for the jobs we need in Vermont we need to support those kids."

The money for social workers at schools around the state could come from the Agency of Human Resources, Vilaseca suggested.

Peter Sterling, single-payer advocate and director for the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security Education Fund, is a strong proponent of the idea.

“In general, I think it’s a good thing because there are a lot of kids that for whatever reason don’t get to see a pediatrician or dentist,” he said. “Part of controlling health care costs is getting kids preventative kids health care.”

Jeffrey Wennberg is director of the anti-single payer group Vermonters for Health Care Freedom, and he frequently criticizes Shumlin’s health care proposals. But he said this proposal could benefit the state’s education and health care systems if the model doesn’t rack up too many costs.

He said areas like Burlington, Rutland and Montpelier — which have numerous provider options — don’t necessarily need better health care in schools when adequate care is just down the road. More remote schools, however, could benefit from such a program, he opined.

“It’s not a bad idea, but it needs to be tailored to the local needs of the community and the source of funding should in no way be in competition with the funds school boards must use to provide their educational programs,” said Wennberg. “If his goal is to replicate the Bennington model across the entire state it would be enormously expensive and in some ways unnecessary.

Editor's note: This story was updated at 5:57 a.m. and 8:57 a.m. Jan. 11.

Correction: Jeff Francis is the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, not the Principals' Association. VSAC receives money from the state for grants, not loans.

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Andrew Stein

About Andrew

Andrew Stein is the energy and health care reporter for VTDigger. He is a 2012 fellow at the First Amendment Institute and previously worked as a reporter and assistant online editor at the Addison County Independent, where he helped the publication win top state and New England awards for its website. Andrew is a former China Fulbright Research Fellow and a graduate of Kenyon College. As a Fulbright fellow, he researched the junction of Chinese economic, agricultural and environmental policymaking through an analysis of China’s modern tea industry. He is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and has been awarded research grants from Middlebury College and the Freeman Foundation to investigate Chinese environmental policies. A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, his work has also appeared in publications such as the Math Association of America’s quarterly journal Math Horizons and When Andrew isn’t writing stories, he can likely be found playing Boggle with his wife, fly fishing or brewing beer.

Email: [email protected]

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