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.
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.
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?”
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.
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