Frank Bryan: School district consolidation would be a giant step … backwards

Bryan Leapfrog Dynamic

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Frank Bryan, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Vermont. It was first published in the Rutland Herald and Times Argus on Sunday, April 27, 2014 (before the end of the legislative session).

When Robert Naisbitt published (in 1982) his seminal treatment (entitled “Megatrends”) of the emerging characteristics of the “third wave” (what is now called “postindustrial society”), he advised that it is important “to be riding the horse of history in the direction the horse is going.”

Those who might be tempted to support the bill in the Legislature to consolidate school districts should be advised that this particular horse is galloping backwards straight into the bowels of the past: the second wave – the concentrated, dehumanizing, hierarchical structure and politics of urban-industrial society. The world on the other hand (and especially Vermont) is fully engaged in future: what some have called the “techno-politics” of a more humane, decentralized and (most importantly) democratic postindustrial world. I say “techno” politics to emphasize that the key to this future is the (still developing) possibilities of the computer and its creation of the “information” society.

I intend here no strict analysis of the technical faults of H.883, which have been (with devastating effect I might add) already critiqued on these pages. But it is important to understand that this bill is “conservative” in the behavioral sense – perpetuating a process that has long since crested and passed: the process of increasing centralism, hierarchy and (yes) inhumanity in politics and governance.

And make no mistake, this bill is a major blow against small town democracy.


This critique is especially important because Vermont is so deeply committed to the third wave. Indeed, when I read Naisbitt’s book over 30 years ago I noted in a margin (when he wrote “agricultural and informational societies are decentralized …”) “This is Vermont!” For even then we were a leader in information technology. In fact Vermont had (despite its bucolic reputation) been a leader in technology from the beginning. For my own part I once wrote that: “while Vermont contributed almost none of the bulk of the industrial revolution, it contributes an amazing amount of the brains, given its tiny population.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, so can be a causal flow chart! (Honest.) I urge readers to take a moment to “follow the arrows in the accompanying diagram. Here I outline the specifics of the model.

In short, the bill to “streamline” the educational governance structure in Vermont is a giant step toward what political scientists often call “marketplace” politics which features organized groups “buying and selling” influence in a political marketplace. It is designed to be fair of course and your vote is your currency. Our centralized marketplace in Vermont is better than it is in most states. But one of the reasons for that is because it is supported by a couple of centuries of decentralized small town democracy. And make no mistake; this bill is a major blow against small town democracy.

As Vermont’s own John Dewey (who was one of America’s all-time leading political philosophers) once said: “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the small community.” And knowing Dewey, is there any doubt that he might have added; “and face-to-face democratic governance in local education is the soul of the small community”?

On a personal note, I’ve been studying and writing about democracy in Vermont for half a century. I can’t remember a more serious threat to it. Please. Defeat this bill.

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  • Helen Keith

    Thank you, you put it so well.

  • Frank, you’ll be pleased to know that this former student of yours referenced your leapfrog principle on the floor of the House during debate on H.883.

  • Wendy wilton

    If Vermont really wanted to achieve Techno Post modern democracy and human scale politics we would enact a statewide school choice system where parents and students would choose the school best suited for the student. Schools would strive to meet the needs of those students.

    I would argue that if the state decides to enact a bill similar to H.883 then instituting broad public school choice would be the only possible counterbalance to this concentration of power in education.

    A broad school choice system would attract new economy entrepreneurs who would seek to live in a state where such choices would be available, thus bolstering our state’s job offerings for our youth.

    Sadly, most of Vermont’s legislature is stuck in the Urban Industrial space described by Prof. Bryan above, as evidenced by the bills they pass and their thinking in general. Old school and not in a positive way…government uber systems and fewer choices for citizens.

  • Ralph Colin

    I wholeheartedly second Wendy’s comments and am grateful to Prof. Bryan for writing so eloquently, as usual, on such an important issue.

  • Bryan is right that school consolidation would be a huge blow to VT’s local democracy.

    But the notion that democracy is a rural phenomenon & cities and industry are antithetical to democracy is simply historically wrong. Since the 18th century the ideals of universal rights & many of the prototypes of democratic practice have evolved in cities, and industry has been the site of the development of democratic workers’ organizing and visions of economic justice. VT’s small-town democracy may even be an exception historically and globally–which makes it all the more valuable.

  • Janice Prindle

    Frank has it right and no, we do not need your competitive marketplace of schools, Ms. Wilton. We do not need to privatize education– a model that has failed in corrections, defense, and the postal service, putting profits over people, including the workers. Public education is the sacred heart if our social contract.

    • Wendy wilton

      Janice, re-read my comments please. I have specifically stated broad public school choice. Public education would not ever be a hyper-competitive market place, such as food products or cell phones. However parent and student choices would encourage several good things including better outcomes and specialization of curricula to meet the needs of 21st century education.

  • Elise B. Eaton

    As a full-freight property tax payer, I am looking for economic efficiencies. Vermont’s DOE report shows that from 2008-2013 there were 3,702 fewer enrollments. Vermont’s population hasn’t changed much over many years’ time. Coupled with our smallness in size is a boastful pride in the accessiblity to our elected and appointed representatives. We already know or can easily locate our neighbors. It seems to me that having 334 entities oversee our schools of which there are 283 districts ( of which 3 are technical districts), 46 supervisory unions, and 5 joint contract schools smacks of the big fish in a small pond syndrome. I don’t see any valid reason to not explore seriously a paradigm shift.

  • Ralph Colin

    Ms. Prindle: In her comment, where does Wendy Wilton advocate for private schools? In fact, she specifically speaks for “instituting broad public school choice…”
    There is no suggestion in her remarks that the state should privatize education of any sort. You would do yourself a favor by rereading what she actually says instead of tilting at windmills.

    • Jason Farrell

      I suspect the language used here by Ms. Wilton intentionally veils her position on private schools, including religious institutions. I do allow that she may have changed her mind since the days when she was the Treasurer of the “School Choice Now PAC” in 2002. However, that PAC actively promoted the idea that “Vermont needs expanded parental choice in education, choice that includes all grade levels and all school alternatives, including religious school alternatives.”

      Maybe Ms. Wilton would be willing to help clarify whether she supports school choice including private institutions, specifically religious institutions, for us?

      • Shayne Spence

        Do you think parents shouldn’t be able to choose the school that is best for their children, Jason? Because I personally think that is a pretty radical thing to say, that the government knows better than parents how best to educate their children.

      • Wendy wilton

        I stated broad public school choice in my comments. To me, that does not include religious schools but would include independent schools that receive public tuition dollars through Vermont’s longstanding tradition (and act as public schools).
        This has been my consistent position for many years, including my work as a legislator and later involvement with school choice initiatives. I believe parents should have a right to choose their child’s school within the public system. Many positive outcomes could come from this including expansion and depth in critical study areas such as art and environmental education. Think about that.

  • Paul Lorenzini

    To the far left, United Nations globalists, this is a huge step forward.

  • I must have missed the part of the Constitution that spoke to public education and the social contract.

    Oh, if it’s the heart of an unwritten contract, that might help explain why the “public” doesn’t pay for education, in that the bulk of school taxes are borne by a fraction of the state’s populace, and, more importantly, our children aren’t getting educated. Even when we spend more, we get less.

    Is that also part of the social contract? If so, someone got a lousy lawyer to negotiate it.


  • Bob Stannard

    Hi Frank! I believe it was John Naisbitt who wrote Megatrends in ’92; not Robert.

    I’m not sure I agree with you on this subject. I look to the south of where I live and see that the Town of Arlington, which has an elementary school and a high school, also has its own supervisory district. With that district comes significant, additional costs. Yes, it’s true that the town continues to vote in support of keeping this district, but then I suspect one can hear the locals hanging out at Stewart’s moaning about their high property taxes.

    • kevin ellis

      This is great stuff and worth a day long conference. I usually always agree with Stannard. But one line in Frank’s piece is troubling – namely that “Vermont is so deeply committed to the third wave.” I don’t think that is true. I think we should be and I think government should be pointed in that direction far more than it is today. But we still spend a huge amount of time, money and resources worried about the second way to the state’s detriment. But it is not easy. Imagine the governor in a staff meeting saying “We need to embrace the third way.” The first interruption is that IBM is on the phone complaining about …” The third way is where we need to go, but the realities of turning a state in that direction are very tough.

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