Legislative Preview: Education committees will pick up pre-K bill, analyze education financing, independent school standards and debate consolidation of districts

Gov. Peter Shumlin set the tone for the 2013 legislative session by devoting his entire inaugural address to education. He offered an array of proposals to bolster both early education and postsecondary opportunities.

This year the governor’s focus will shift to curbing opiate addiction in Vermont, but the 2014 session will nevertheless start with two separate education summits — one organized by lawmakers, the other by the Shumlin administration — and the focus will be on how the state pays for public education and whether taxpayers are getting an adequate return on the investment. (Vermont spent more per pupil than any state but New York in 2011-2012, according to NEA statistics.)

The cost-benefit question will define much of the discussion in the House Education Committee, according Rep. Peter Peltz, D-Woodbury, who serves as vice chair.

The first order of business on the Senate side is in the Appropriations Committee, where a bill to expand pre-kindergarten programs resides. The House passed the legislation, which would bolster state funding to public pre-K programs, and it arrived in Senate Appropriations late last session, when the committee was short on time.

Shumlin said he’s confident the Senate will pass the pre-K bill this year.

Independent schools

In between addressing existential financial questions (lawmakers are expected to consider solutions but take a pass on actually moving legislation forward), the House committee will address several other thorny issues.

Rep. Johannah Donovan, D-Burlington, who chairs the House committee, said she wants to examine public funding for independent schools, and whether the private nonprofits should be required to adhere to public school standards. This issue emerged as a point of contention in the Senate Education Committee last year, although no legislation passed.

School choice policy in Vermont allows public funding to follow some students — many of whom hail from towns without a public school option — from the sending town to the receiving school. Under this setup, independent schools often receive, to varying degrees, public dollars for a portion of their student body.

“I want to have a discussion about that. It seems to me if any school is receiving public dollars then they have obligation to offer services to a child that any public school would provide. I think we have to be careful with our public dollars,” Donovan said.

During an editorial board meeting with VTDigger in early December, Shumlin said he didn’t see “a pressing need to change the system we have now.” “I’m a big believer in local control and over the years different communities have made different choices about how they are going to provide an education to their kids,” Shumlin said.

School consolidation

Donovan and Peltz co-sponsored a bold bill at the end of last session that would do away with supervisory unions and consolidate the governance structures of the all of the state’s school districts into 30 new districts. Both lawmakers say it’s unlikely that legislation will go anywhere anytime soon, but they want to “jump-start the conversation” about consolidating the administrative structures of schools.

Outgoing education secretary Armando Vilaseca urged the committee to consider the proposal when he testified in front of them in November.

Peltz is also interested in revisiting a law that creates incentives for school districts to merge voluntarily to see if there’s anything else the state can do to facilitate this. But he’s mindful that further encouragement of consolidation won’t be well-received at the local level.

“The third rail here is local control,” Peltz said. “I want see if we can we really look at this and be open minded and not say that local control is inviolate because I think when you have local councils and very strong parent groups that influence governance, you don’t need all that administrative overlay to manage it.”

Donovan said addressing the achievement gap is a perennial priority for her committee, and this year she wants to explore whether changing the length of the school day or tinkering with the school calendar could help address lagging test scores for low-income students.

To that end, she’s invited several of the superintendents who recently led an unsuccessful effort in the Champlain Valley to shorten summer vacation and redistribute those days throughout the school year.

“I’m interested in that new calendar,” Donovan said. “It schedules vacations in such a regular way that learning can be retained. I don’t know if it’s going to be popular, but I want to know what’s the value of it, where the opposition is, and if there is a value to it, is there another way to present it?”

Teacher evaluation

Both Donovan and Sen. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, who chairs Senate Education say their committees plan to review a proposal from the Vermont NEA, the state’s largest teachers union, that would change the way teachers are licensed and evaluated.

Teachers are evaluated differently from district to district. The Vermont NEA doesn’t want a statewide evaluation system, but it does want to develop more guidelines that districts can use. The union also wants teacher regulations to be handled by the Office of Professional Regulation, in the Secretary of State’s office, instead of the Agency of Education.

Alicia Freese

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  • My own recent experiences tell me the debate on education finance has begun a very important shift from how much we’re spending to what we’re spending it on. There is nothing like knowing what you’re funding when it comes to getting control over how much you’re spending.

    Up until now the ed financing discussion has always started with how much and then runs into a wall of what’s being funded. I want to warn folks the “what’s being funded” discussion is complicated and doesn’t lend itself to pithy statements very well.

    There is also the issue of comfort: Supervisory Unions and school districts across Vermont not only deal with the familiar reading, writing and arithmetic, but they also compensate for a host of economic, social and medical needs when it comes to the student body.

    As complex as the full answer may be, it should be quite doable this spring to come up with a concise list: requirements as listed in federal law and rule along with Vermont’s Title 16 and other legislation; and requirements as listed in Vermont Agency of Education and State Board of Education rules and regulations.

    It is at the SU level that the issue becomes extremely complex, and this is because of all the ancillary requirements that are possibly unwritten but still attached to the above. But let us not worry about that at first – take on the immediately doable.

    As to consolidation: DO IT OR DON’T! SU and school boards need one thing from government more then anything else: consistency. If mandate top down consolidation is not going to be a part of our future please end these annual threats of such – it is unsettling to everything governance related including the budget process.

    I am more convinced today then ever before that school district and SU consolidation are items for ground up direction, and I sure as hell would hate to be one of the last serving school board members of a local district – but my primary job as a school board member is to make sure whatever happens works for the students and the community.

  • Wayne Andrews

    How about common sense 101? I remember one financial expert answering a question of what to invest in during hard times. He stated” Watch what people buy at the stores during hard times and they will always buy that product”.
    How does that relate to schools? Well have some Dept of Ed gura travel to the the schools spending the least/per student and see what they are doing in order to do so. Talk to all staff not just the educators. You will be surprised at how much it differs. I know, I have done it and watched expenditures in many schools within one district.
    For example if your school (with declining enrollment) does not have a preschool and kindergarten your crazy. Why farm out the dollars to the daycare down the street? Does your schools place heating oil out to bid with other schools? Strange we can do it with paper products and road salt contracts statewide but not heating oil? I have many comments as to how to save but limited time right now to list.

  • Lee Stirling

    I’m interested to see whether any revisions to the income sensitivity provisions are included in the discussion of education funding. The bulk of the feedback on education is in support of local control and it is certainly the town-meeting-day votes on individual school budgets that have a very the most local impact on property taxes. But when such a large proportion of the voters who generally approve these budgets aren’t necessarily subject to it’s effects on their property taxes, it doesn’t seem like a very accountable or equitable system. I suppose the big question is whether it’s more important to promote/maintain home ownership (via income sensitivity) or to allow everyone who votes to experience an equal share of the consequences of their actions.

  • Yup, an no one can see that the “State” is taking total control of our children, mandated by the FEDS. “It takes a village”, as quoted by our next presidential candidate, is nothing short of saying, “it takes Communism”. Just remember, whenever politicians speak, they are not speaking to the people but rather to the establishment. The people are their piggy bank.

    “From the cradle to the grave” and every day all day long the State will indoctrinate our children. Common Core Education is right out of the Communist Education manual.

    Why are private schools “Private”? Yup, so they can teach children the old fashion way and to give parents a choice as to their Childs education.

    More and more burden on the property owner will soon mean Vermont is no longer affordable to live. STOP TAXING US TO DEATH!

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