Vermont public education made waves in 2013 with no less than two Education Secretary appointments, one 5-cent property tax rate hike with a second 7 cent increase in the offing, personalized learning plans for students, and a controversy over a public school becoming a private nonprofit.
Higher education made its own news, too. At the federal level there were changes to the student loan program, and in Vermont institutions explored new partnerships.
Education was the centerpiece of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s second inaugural address, in January, when he announced his intentions for universal early childhood education, expanded meal and healthcare programs for low-income children, college classes for high school students, personalized learning plans for all students and more money for colleges and universities. Shumlin pushed most of his agenda through the Democratic Legislature with little resistance.
In January, the department of education was elevated to a Cabinet level agency. Department commissioner Armando Vilaseca was named interim secretary. Rebecca Holcombe, a New Hampshire educator, will take the reins of the agency in 2014.
PUBLIC EDUCATION SPENDING AND FUNDING
The perennial debate over education spending reached a new pitch in 2013 when the residential and non-residential property tax rates neared convergence. The tipping point triggered a recommendation from Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson that the Legislature re-evaluate of the state’s education funding system. Peterson recommended a five-cent property tax rate increase — the second in two years. Within a week, that recommendation was corrected to seven cents.
At the heart of education financing is school spending. Shumlin has frequently called on schools and locals to curb costs. Voters, however, overwhelmingly approved more local school spending in 2013. More than 90 percent of school budgets were approved in March.
One of the governor’s most conspicuous disappointments in 2013 was the rejection of his plan to bring universal early child education to Vermont. In his second inaugural address, in January, Shumlin proposed “the largest single investment in early childhood education in Vermont’s history.” His goal was to increase spending on child-care subsidies for low-income families.
Shumlin’s proposed method of paying for the initiative, however, was to divert a portion of the state’s contribution toward the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income Vermonters — to the childcare subsidy program. The initiative was roundly shot down by the Legislature. Pre-K education is a topic that will likely resurface in 2014.
Channeling public money to independent schools was already a contentious issue at the start of 2013. But the pitch of that debate heightened in January, when the state Board of Education approved an application from North Bennington to privatize its public elementary school.
Secretary Vilaseca questioned the constitutionality of the decision, while ardent independent school advocates defended the transition. The two factions squared off in competing reports in December, bringing a summer study committee to a less than harmonious close.
Even while property tax rates have increased to politically dangerous levels to keep school budgets in the black, some new school programs got the green light in 2013. The Legislature voted to expand the free school lunch program to feed all low-income students whose families fall between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty level. The funding — about $322,250 in the 2014 budget — will cover income levels just outside the federal school lunch eligibility.
Another of Shumlin’s initiatives got off the ground in 2013: personalized learning plans for all students in grades 7 through 12.
And Shumlin got exactly what he wanted with a new “flexible pathways” program that allows high school students to get credit for college courses.
Changes to the federal student loan program earned the ire of Vermont’s congressional delegation. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch fear that tying Stafford loan interest rates to U.S. Treasury rates will only temporarily hold down borrowing costs. Welch introduced a draft Student Financial Aid Simplification Act to broaden financial aid and spread around more loan money by reducing administrative costs.
A February study by the New England Board of Education, shows that demand for loan money may be driven by tuition cost increases that have outpaced the growth of household income — in Vermont more than any other New England state.
The University of Vermont’s new president, Tom Sullivan, announced in February that the school would institute its smallest tuition uptick in 36 years: 2.9 percent. But four months later, trustees stared down a $5.8 million budget shortfall due to declining enrollment of higher-paying out-of-state students and an increase in the number of incoming students who rely on financial aid. The school tapped one-time funds to bridge the gap.
The Vermont Law School has struggled with similar trends in recent years, as declining enrollment spurred administrative cutbacks and increases to class size.
In response to grim balance sheets and a need to compete for Vermont, U.S. and international students, alike, the University of Vermont and the Vermont Law School announced a joint degree program whereby students can earn an undergraduate degree in three years, followed by a law degree in two years. Other notable program changes include transformation of UVM’s traditional business degree to a Sustainable MBA program, a cross-institutional food systems program shared by consortium of Vermont colleges, and new accounting programs, spurred by changes to the state’s professional regulation of the field.
Vermont’s higher education evolution is unfolding along with changes in leadership, in addition to Tom Sullivan’s new position as president of the University of Vermont. Plainfield’s Goddard College is weathering a rocky transition as president Barbara Vacarr exits amid a financial “tidal wave” and tension between faculty and staff. And next door in New Hampshire, Dartmouth College welcomed Phil Hanlon as the Ivy League school’s newest leader.