Rama Schneider: No kicking, no screaming; just five simple ideas

Editor’s note: This commentary by Rama Schneider, an elected member of the Williamstown School District Board of Directors.

It appears to me that Vermont is headed to some major governance restructuring regarding our state’s public education system. I don’t approve of all the changes that seem most likely, but that is an argument I’m willing to say has been had and is over with and I see it as part of my responsibilities to be engaged and help make the outcome as positive as possible.

Over the last five or more years Vermont’s Legislature has pushed for district consolidation and moved policy and day-to-day decision-making authority from the local districts to the supervisory unions. The desired end was and is obvious: de facto consolidation as business, curriculum, special education, busing, and personnel have come under the purview of supervisory unions.

Of course this hasn’t been bad by definition. The Orange North Supervisory Union, for example, realized many structural and economic efficiencies and benefits by doing much of this well before the the General Assembly decided to dictate. I also see a positive in that the above restructuring changes allow the local boards to focus on policy and oversight of the local district and infrastructure. Even in curriculum there is still an important place for the local boards: the state sets the overall standards, the supervisory union designs the curriculum and the local board influences the actual classes that deliver the curriculum designed to provide an outcome consistent with the standards.

I believe we can accomplish the goals of the Vermont Agency of Education and General Assembly and provide for the needs of the professionals in our schools while maintaining the essential Vermont value of distributed decision making.

 

I would argue that none of this is more important than providing the local community with immediate, direct and effective access to those who make and implement much of the policy that drives day to day school operations — that local control thing.

It is this community connection, the access and accountability — the local control, that is most endangered by current consolidation proposals. I believe we can accomplish the goals of the Vermont Agency of Education and General Assembly and provide for the needs of the professionals in our schools while maintaining the essential Vermont value of distributed decision making. I accept that we are going to have a restructuring of our schools’ system of governance — and it is my sincere desire that we will incorporate the following five values (in no particular order):

1) Public education — Whatever we end up with should provide access to a quality education that is free of charge at the door.

2) Fair governance — Governance consolidation should not be a vehicle for large communities to swallow the schools of smaller ones. We can accomplish this by designing centralized boards along the lines of supervisory union boards. There should be equal representation based upon operating district and not proportional to population.

3) Local accountability and input — Local boards will still have an important role to play for the same reasons local boards are important today. Student success, actual classes, accountability and oversight and more can still be monitored or handled much better at the building level. By leaving the local boards intact we also open up the vehicle for an supervisory union-style centralized board that is made up of appointed members.

4) Parental and student choice — There is every reason to continue our use of Vermont’s system of independent schools and expand upon the current public school choices available. We are embarking upon a journey that will be defined by the rhetoric of “personalized learning plans,” and we should turn that rhetoric into a functioning reality.

5) Accountability to society at large — Vermonters deserve to know and have influence over the educational system they support with money and time and more.

So yeah, I don’t really agree with this drive for governance consolidation that most legislators and Vermonters seem to agree with, but I do not intend to be dragged along kicking and screaming. At the end of the day I see my primary function as a school board member to be making it work as good as it can work. I hope we can continue with some cherished values.

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  • Dave Bellini

    I think if Vermonters listed their top five educational concerns COST CONTROL would be near the top.
    .
    Vermont needs property tax reform as in a hard property tax cap. Taxes on primary residences should be capped at a percentage of the home value. This would allow the endless debate about how best to educate Johnny to continue but home owners would be protected. It would put school boards and municipalities on a budget, in terms of how much they can bleed out of homeowners.

    • Cost control is and has been the domain of the community decision making. School boards can only propose a budget – it takes the will of the voters to approve that budget.

      Costs and how folks feel about them is up for popular vote every year – with tens (should be hundreds) of thousands of Vermonters expressing their opinion.

      • Dave Bellini

        No, costs are not up to voters. Today we are seeing that even when some districts are keeping costs level their property taxes are going up. Voters don’t get to control the costs of special ed either. Voters WILL be able to control costs if Vermont can pass property tax reform. THAT would be true cost control. AND,,,, school boards propose a budget and if the vote fails they just propose the same budget again and have another vote and as many votes as necessary until it passes. A better way is one vote, if it fails the school gets last year’s funding. The game is rigged right now.

  • Janice Prindle

    I think it’s too bad more school board members aren’t kicking and screaming about this. It’s a bad idea and simply hoping won’t protect local control or cost control, let alone the educational experience for students. We aren’t fixing what’s broken– we are taking a system grounded in Vermont’s traditional values, one that is working very well by the data on comparative costs and student performance, and breaking it. When curricula, personnel and costs are all in the control of mega districts, what real policy will local boards have to deal with? When has bigger ever been better in dealing with bureaucracy?

  • Well said Rama.

  • Cynthia Browning

    Check out this article in yesterday’s Globe. May not all apply to Vermont’s scale of things, but worth reading that in other places the expected savings and quality improvements from consolidation have not always occurred.

    Rep. Cynthia Browning, Arlington

    Other states have found merging school districts doesn’t work – The Boston
    Globe
    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/03/08/together_we_wont/

    ________________________________

    IN THE ONGOING effort to fix America’s ailing schools, one of the most
    popular ideas is to shrink the number of school districts.

    The country once had more than 130,000 independent districts managed by
    local communities. Merging them into larger units, advocates said, would
    lead to a more efficient system, reducing costs while offering students
    more opportunities and producing better academic results. This approach,
    part of a larger movement to standardize schools, reduced the number of
    districts by 90 percent between 1930 and 1970.

    With budgets under fire, consolidation is again gaining traction as a way
    to save money. Today, more than a dozen states – including Maine and
    Vermont – have seriously considered or already implemented plans for
    fewer, larger districts. And last June, when Governor Deval Patrick of
    Massachusetts announced his comprehensive education reform agenda, he made
    consolidation a top priority. Reducing the number of districts will
    improve the quality of education, he has said. Virtually every district in
    the state is a candidate for consolidation if it’s determined that merging
    with another district would benefit its academic performance, according to
    J.D. LaRock, chief policy adviser for the state education office.

    But a wave of research from around the country shows that consolidation
    does not improve schools or lead to better academic results. Spending on
    education does not go down; indeed, budgets often balloon with increased
    transportation costs and more administrators to run enlarged districts.
    Consolidation leads to schools closing and to bigger schools, with less
    parental involvement and community participation. And, in many parts of
    the United States, it has led to children on unconscionable bus rides
    lasting several hours a day.

    “There is either no advantage or actually a disadvantage to making these
    enormous uber-districts,” says Andrew J. Coulson, director of the Center
    for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., who has
    conducted two major studies on consolidation. “They just don’t help kids.”

    As a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University several years ago,
    Christopher R. Berry became intrigued with the idea that district
    consolidation was, in his words, “arguably the most profound reform
    movement in 20th-century education.” Yet almost no one had studied its
    effects on students.

    Now an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy Studies
    at the University of Chicago, Berry set out to fill that vacuum. Focusing
    on 1930 to 1970, the most intense period of consolidation in the United
    States, he found that consolidation of districts inevitably resulted in
    the consolidation of schools – closing schools and moving to bigger
    schools. With regard to student achievement, consolidation was “generally
    negative,” he says, because dropout rates and wages earned by graduates
    got worse following mergers. (There was no standardized testing of student
    performance at the time.) His study, “Growing Pains: The School
    Consolidation Movement and Student Outcomes,” co-authored with Martin R.
    West and published in 2008 in the Journal of Law, Economics, and
    Organization, also concluded that spending on education did not decrease
    following consolidation.

    These findings challenged the entire consolidation movement, which was
    spearheaded with almost no critical inquiry by state officials and
    educational administrators, says Berry. “They seem to be convinced, almost
    as a matter of professional ideology, that bigger must be better,” he
    says.

    Several years ago, when Michigan began promoting consolidation, the Cato
    Institute’s Coulson undertook a study there and in three other states and
    reached the same conclusion as Berry. If the goal is to improve academics,
    there is “no advantage whatsoever to either breaking up districts or
    consolidating districts,” says Coulson. A 2007 study by Indiana University
    researchers found student achievement is not improved by consolidation; a
    2008 study in Iowa found dropout rates did not decline after district
    mergers.

    Proponents insist that larger districts are cheaper. In theory, big
    districts can achieve efficiencies of scale with lower per-pupil costs
    because fixed expenses are spread among a larger student body, and bigger
    districts have the power to negotiate better prices for supplies and
    utilities. But studies show the anticipated savings usually don’t
    materialize. Like Berry’s research, the Iowa study, by Brian Knight at
    Brown University and Nora Gordon at the University of California, San
    Diego, found per-pupil spending did not decrease after consolidation. It
    is true that very small districts – with fewer than 500 students, say –
    are the most expensive on a per-pupil basis, and merging them has the
    potential to significantly reduce per-pupil costs. But these districts
    represent a tiny fraction of any state’s educational budget, so combining
    them has minimal effect on total costs, says John Yinger of Syracuse
    University, who in 2001 published with William Duncombe a study of
    district consolidation in New York State.

    Moreover, there’s no guarantee that consolidating even tiny districts will
    save money, Yinger emphasizes: The very process of consolidation is
    expensive, including new buildings and the often-substantial financial
    incentives states give to local communities to encourage mergers.
    Transportation costs can skyrocket with hauling kids to schools farther
    away. If there are cost savings, they often don’t show up for a decade or
    more, according to Yinger, whose study was published as a working paper
    for the Center for Policy Research at Syracuse. Moreover, there was no
    indication that any money saved was funneled back into schools to improve
    academics, he says.

    Meanwhile, Coulson has data that should give consolidation proponents real
    pause. If states are truly serious about cost savings, they should be
    focusing on breaking up big districts rather than combining smaller ones,
    he says. In Michigan, breaking up districts larger than 3,000 students
    would save the state 12 times as much as merging small ones: $363 million
    a year versus $31 million a year, he found. Yet there’s rarely any
    discussion of this option, in Massachusetts or elsewhere.

    Governor Patrick is on an ambitious schedule. He wants a substantial
    reduction in the Commonwealth’s 329 districts, although he hasn’t settled
    on the ideal number and district size, and legislation to that end will be
    introduced in the next year to 18 months, according to Secretary of
    Education Paul Reville. The governor and his administration are convinced
    that fewer districts will translate into better academics: each district
    will be larger, and larger districts perform better, they say.

    In December, the governor’s office released a study that found that larger
    districts in Massachusetts were academically outpacing smaller ones.
    Specifically, it found that on a continuum, districts closer to 5,000
    pupils were more likely to have eighth-graders who perform better on the
    MCAS than smaller districts, as well as lower rates of student
    absenteeism.

    “It’s not all on one side, but there are some key indicators on which it
    does appear large districts have an advantage,” says LaRock, primary
    author of the report. (The national studies on consolidation and research
    from other states are not particularly relevant, he argues, saying each
    state has a different educational structure.)

    But a competing report in Massachusetts has found that small districts
    achieve better academic results. Last September, the Massachusetts
    Association of School Superintendents’ Small and Rural School District
    Task Force completed a yearlong study that examined student performance in
    the Commonwealth. It found that the graduation rates in small districts
    were 6.5 percent higher than the state average, and small districts had a
    lower dropout rate and better attendance rates. Only 6 percent of small
    districts were considered “underperforming,” compared with 20 percent
    statewide, according to standards set by the Massachusetts Department of
    Elementary and Secondary Education.

    The 10th-grade MCAS is a more important indicator than the eighth-grade
    scores, the task force believes, and here smaller districts have an
    advantage. “On the 10th-grade MCAS, the small districts outperformed the
    midsized and large,” says Nicholas Young, superintendent in Hadley and a
    vocal opponent of forced consolidation. “Some of the highest-performing
    districts are at or under 1,000 students.”

    If saving money is the goal, says Young, there are many studies that
    support effective but less-drastic approaches that keep schools in local
    hands, such as purchasing collaboratives, in which independent districts
    join together to buy supplies or utilities, or share certain teachers or
    administrators. In Maine, consolidation opponents are pushing this option.
    Reville says he is open to this approach but says it doesn’t substitute
    for consolidation because fewer districts will lead to better schools
    through streamlined administration and centralized control over education.

    “When we talk about thinking and acting like a school system instead of
    system of schools, I think of places like Maryland, where [the state
    superintendent of schools] can get 24 superintendents around a table a
    couple of times a month if she needs to talk about educational policy … to
    get everyone on the same page, to connect it with a system of higher
    education,” Reville says. “There are operational advantages.”

    For more than 80 years, well-intentioned people have been trying to make
    schools better this way. And it seems logical.

    It just doesn’t work.

    Elaine McArdle is a writer in Cambridge.

    © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.
    ________________________________

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