Education summit seeks common ground

If there was a single silver bullet that could fix Vermont’s education system, it would have been fired by now, Gov. Peter Shumlin said in a speech to 200 educators Monday morning at the DoubleTree by Hilton in South Burlington.

Don’t try to come out of the summit with one great idea, Shumlin entreated the crowd, but put together the best possible pack of shotgun pellets you can find.

Education leaders came together for the Green Mountain Imperative: a Breakthrough Summit on Public Education, an invitation-only gathering convened by the Vermont Business Roundtable with eight partner organizations. After a front-loaded presentation on the primary challenges facing the state’s education system, namely a persistent achievement gap between students of rich and poor families, the educators tried to imagine what a great school system would look like.

Jen and Tony Silbert, of Rhode Island-based Spartina Consulting, instructed participants to abandon preconceived notions about what’s realistic and imagine an ideal education system. Educators worked in groups of 10, organized around the principles of equity, efficiency and system capacity.

Rather than identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats — also known as SWOT, a common framework for organizational analysis — they focused on strengths, opportunities, aspirations and results, instead. SOAR.

“If we want to look for what is broke, we’ll find it, and it will grow,” Jen Silbert said. Don’t report back what’s wrong with the system now, she told them. Tell the room what you want education to look like in Vermont.

Some said education starts at birth. Others said every child wants to learn, and schools aren’t bound by walls or buildings.

Victoria Howard, a senior at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, explains how learning relationships are formed in "virtual" classrooms. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Victoria Howard, a senior at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, explains how learning relationships are formed in “virtual” classrooms. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

The ideas included a single academic calendar for all schools, a statewide teachers contract, and free college tuition for all Vermont students.

In the ideal system, teachers, administrators and school board members would be trained to consistent standards. Parents would learn with their children. Public education would be affordable for taxpayers. Educational training would be geared toward learning, not teaching.

That was Monday. Tuesday will bring the hard work: filtering the doable from the possible, and hammering out ways to make it happen.

"Systems Capacity" is one of three focus areas for group conversations Monday. Photo by Hilary Niles / VTDigger
“Systems Capacity” is one of three focus areas for group conversations Monday. Photo by Hilary Niles / VTDigger

The Green Mountain Imperative is at least the third gathering in a year dedicated to examination of Vermont’s education system. The organizers believe this event will lead to transformative change. The groups behind the initiative include the Vermont Agency of Education, State Board of Education, House Speaker Shap Smith, Building Bright Futures, Vermont Community Foundation, Vermont School Board Association, Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.

Participants — representing the Vermont NEA, state nonprofits, schools, school boards and administrators, Vermont businesses, the Agency of Human Services, parents and students — were required to attend the summit for both days. They also had to sign a pledge committing to a spirit of collaboration in their efforts toward the end goal: the creation of a high quality learning experience for every Vermont student through careful allocation of resources.

“If the elections taught us anything,” Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe told the group, it’s that Vermonters want the education system fixed.

Voter dissatisfaction with the education funding system resulted in the near-record rejection of 35 school budgets on Town Meeting Day in March. And earlier this month, the General Election was another clarion call. Republicans were voted into the Statehouse and two-term incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, was nearly ousted.

One of the driving factors is the rapid increase in statewide property tax rates that fund public education. Rates have increased by 9 cents per $100 of value in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 and are predicted to rise again.

Vermont’s education system, now about 15 years old, successfully delivers equalized funding, as mandated by the 1997 Brigham Supreme Court case. But Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson has said for a year that its financing mechanism has “aged out,” and Holcombe presented data showing unequal outcomes between students of means and their low-income counterparts — especially boys. The quality is there, she said, but only for some.

Holcombe has given the same presentation at six regional meetings of the Vermont School Boards Association this fall, detailing the inverse relationship between school size and property taxes: as student populations decline, the cost of education has climbed.


From Monday’s brainstorming session, Lisa Ventriss, the president of the Vermont Business Roundtable, hopes the gathering can find consensus on about a half-dozen proposals by Tuesday afternoon. On a scale of one to 10, she’s “100 percent” confident they can find common ground to move forward. She wants to identify leaders assigned to each priority who will take responsibility for implementing the ideas in the coming year, Ventriss said.

Her co-convener Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, is also hopeful, but more subdued in his expectations.

“A clear understanding of the scope of the challenge we face would be great progress,” Francis said. Regardless of the subject-matter expertise any individual may possess, no collection of minds can conjure a viable set of solutions without the “collective knowledge” of the full set of circumstances, he said.IMG_5719

Small group discussions throughout the day revealed that participants have dovetailed goals and disparate priorities. Eyes lit up. Tongues were bitten. Conversation continued. Color-coded sticky notes were produced.

If Ventriss gets her wish, a handful of those sticky notes will make their way into legislation next year.

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  • John Freitag

    The problem is not with the funding mechanism for Act60/68 . It is with the fact that in the last four years what the Education Fund is paying for has been greatly expanded beyond the original intentions of paying for K- 12 education.
    This has resulted in a much higher property tax burden and it will be upped again next year with the inclusion of the need to fund Pre-School for every 3 and 4 year old in the State, as well a new tax on local school districts for every new hire to help pay for the underfunded State teachers health retirement benefits.
    We need to be honest and admit that much of the increases in property taxes comes directly from new programs and taxes imposed by those in Montpelier on local districts.
    John Freitag

    • Jamie Carter

      “The problem is not with the funding mechanism for Act60/68 ”

      I have to disagree with this… property taxes are hugely unequitable. Considering 1/3rd of the state does not own a home and therefore pays only a portion of the property tax (for which they never see a bill and are disconnected from it) and of the 2/3rds that do a large number pay through income sensitivity and more yet have land in current use that is subject…

      Well what we have is a very unequal funding method. An income tax based system with a fixed rate pre-deductions is the only real way to make it equal

  • “The ideas included a single academic calendar for all schools, a statewide teachers contract, and free college tuition for all Vermont students. In the ideal system, teachers, administrators and school board members would be trained to consistent standards….”

    All of these ideas point to top-down, centralized control, and a one-size-fits all, cookie cutter approach to education. This is not the solution. This is the problem.

    • Jamie Carter

      Standardized school calenders and training is a problem?

      You can’t possible think that…

      • I don’t have a problem with trained teachers. I have a problem with training all teachers in the same way. That does not promote creativity and innovation, two qualities that are necessary for effective education.

        And same goes for standardized school calendars. A) I live in a resort town where parents work on the “standard” holidays. You’re saying we should not be able to adjust our calendar to allow kids to be in school when their parents are working hardest, and parents should not be allowed take time off when their jobs allow.

        One size fits all fits few.

        In addition, why not allow some schools to experiment with different calendars? A shorter summer vacation/longer winter break so kids don’t have to deal with retention issues. That is one of the biggest factors affecting the outcome differences between rich and poor kids — yet you want to take it off the table as a place to innovate and experiment. That’s foolish.

        • Janice Prindle

          I don’t often agree with you, but here I do. Standardized training of teachers (assuming it could even be humanly possible) would be as potentially tragic as one-size-for-all teaching of students. People are not pop tarts. There are already professional standards, and academic standards; it’s not a case of ‘anything goes.’ And the stated problem here — the achievement gap between “students of means and their low-income counterparts”– can’t be blamed on teachers, or schools.

          Here is where I expect we will disagree: this problem is at root economic. We pay, in the form of escalating school budgets, for what we don’t invest in social programs to lift families out of poverty: prenatal health care, adequate nutrition, secure housing, access to early childhood learning experiences. One way or another, we pay. Either we do it through state and federal tax dollars (with a far more equitable tax policy, one that doesn’t reward capital gains at the expense of earned income) — or we do it through local property taxes, with convoluted state formulas to equalize that burden.

          This problem simply doesn’t exist in other civilized nations, such as Europe. Only here, and it’s developed in particular over the past 30 years, with the gradually rewriting of the federal tax code to favor the wealthy and allow corporations to shift jobs, headquarters and overseas, while enjoying huge tax breaks and even subsidies at home — and now, they can spend as much as they need to, to buy control of Congress and protect those benefits.
          Meanwhile, our problem will only get worse: more people are sliding into the poverty of jobs that don’t pay a living wage.

          Whatever goes on at this little summit will have zero impact on the real problem. I doubt very much that the business roundtable folks are willing to part with any of their under-taxed income to sponsor a needy family, or lobby Congress for an overhaul of our tax system, for starters — but that would make more sense.

          • Jamie Carter

            Don’t we already standardize teacher training via a BA in Education?

            DO all teachers not have the same education (outside of the minority who went through alternative licensure)

            Do all teachers not have to take and pass the PRAXIS I & II..

            Do all teachers not have to go through a licensure process that ensures they have a certain set of training that has been met?

  • Mary Daly

    I note that the Independent School Association is absent from the groups included in this discussion. The focus is on making everything the same. I’m not sure that is going to solve any problem. Get back to the basics – reading, writing and arithmetic and see what happens. Remove mandates that are adding to the cost and do little to teach anything to anyone.

  • Anne Blake

    One reason why education costs in Vermont are so high: Vermont employs 340 elementary and secondary employees per 10,000 residents, more than any other state. By comparison, rates for Washington and Nevada are about 150.

  • Lee Stirling

    Unless they just forgot to mention it in the article, there was no reference to the potentially dramatic impact of the soon-to-be released single payer health care plan to education property taxes. In a previous commentary on Nov. 10, John Franco noted that teachers currently have an average health insurance actuarial value of about 94% and pay about 3.6% of their income toward premiums. Under a state-wide single-payer plan, the plan actuarial value will likely be considerably less (perhaps even under 85%), and will cost teachers considerably more out of pocket to access health care than they have become accustomed to. So what’s going to happen here? Will teachers and their union demand higher pay to remain insulated from higher out-of-pocket costs under single-payer and how will this effect the property tax? Will teachers get to keep their current “Cadillac” plans and be exempted from participating in single payer, a questionable practice that reduces the cost/risk sharing pool for everyone else that doesn’t have such a choice? What happens in 2018 when the 40% tax on “Cadillac” plans under the federal Affordable Care Act comes into play? Will teachers and their union demand higher pay to remain insulated from higher premium costs as a result of this 40% “Cadillac” tax and how will this effect the property tax? It seems to me like either way you slice it there will be another increase to the property tax to address one or the other of these scenarios described re: teacher health insurance. I wonder if that’s already become a foregone conclusion by Sec. of Ed. Holcombe and members of Shap Smith’s secret education funding work group. I hope they don’t share Jonathan Gruber’s view of people in general (in VT) that we’re just too stupid to know the difference and that we really can see this train wreck coming.

  • John McClaughry

    Ummm, looks like the Establishment convened another invitation-only “summit” of “stakeholders” to come up with ways to preserve their costly, sprawling public school empire.
    I wonder how many invitees spoke up for increasing parental choice and provider competition to improve education and lower costs? My best estimate: zero. Such people are not eligible to participate.
    For a real explanation of how to achieve “Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars”, see the 2009 EAI Commission report at

    We would have been happy to provide copies for the attendees, but somehow The Vermont Business Roundtable neglected to ask for them.

    • Janice Prindle

      Some folks just don’t get it: your model of competitive school choice has failed in the real world of public education. We don’t need that any more than we need that other business model of one big statewide school district that seems to be the fantasy here. Business models and education do not mix.

    • John MacGovern

      Right on, John. When will they everrrr learn…

  • timothy price

    Fortunately, there is growing participation in “home schooling”. Institutionalized kids are a poor substitute for becoming knowledgable, creative, and productive citizens… no matter how much administrators earn or how many of them there are.

  • Jamie Carter

    “primary challenges facing the state’s education system, namely a persistent achievement gap between students of rich and poor families,”

    It’s a persistant achievement gap because it’s not a fixable problem. That’s the problem, and that’s where a lot of money is wasted.

    A large part of a person’s ability to learn is controlled by their genetics… (see

    What this means, is a relatively unintelligent person, in general, earns less money. They have offspring who are simply going to struggle in school… A high income earner is probably well -educated and/or very intelligent, their kids will be as well.

    The achievement gap is not a problem with a solution and educators including Holcombe know it. They won’t admit it, but they know it. However, simply put… they need to look like they are trying to do something about it but they may as well be trying to teach your kids eyes to be green instead of brown.

    • Tom Cecere

      I strongly disagree with your conclusion. It’s the INCOME that’s inherited. All scientific and statistical data show that generations “regress to the mean”…that tall parents have children who are closer to the average, “less intelligent” parents also have children closer (or above) average.

      But income, alas, is passed from generation to generation…and that’s the basis of the gap, not some DNA-based capability.

      • Jamie Carter

        You could try reading the article out of Science Magazine. You can disagree if you like…but the conclusions of researchers studying the issue indicate that achievement in an academic setting is controlled by genetics. This has been demonstrated by several studies, and in fact 20 genetic variants have been identified. Your assertion that DNA does not play a significant role in intelligence and education is factually and demonstratably false. Your disagreement doesn’t change that.

      • paul lutz

        When I graduated HS I had no money. My parents were very poor. I make over 80k a year now and have very little debt. Don’t sterotype.

        • Jamie Carter

          Stereotype what?

          The article, and educational officials, are trying to link educational achievement with income levels. I simply pointed out that wasn’t true and offered a reasonable explanation as to why that relationship is casual and not direct. As with everything there is no absolutes and everything is generalized. I’m sorry if I offended you in someway and you perceived that I was talking about you… but the fact remains that educational outcomes is not a result of income…in general, but rather is in large part pre-determined.

    • Janice Prindle

      The study said genes “influenced” not “controlled” learning. Specifically, it focused on variations in scores on one exam in one mostly homogeneous nation that provides all students with equal access to early learning and health care. The article cautions against taking this study the way you are taking it:
      “The results, Thompson points out, would likely differ in less-developed countries where children don’t have equal access to education; academic achievement in these places is shaped more by opportunities than genetics. ” In other words, all other factors being equal, genetics plays an interesting role.
      But in this nation, all factors aren’t equal. We have the highest rate of child poverty in the world, so what applies to less developed nations also applies to us. And there are hundreds of studies to support that in the US alone, corrected for all other factors, income alone accounts for the achievement gap for millions of students — a far weightier body of evidence than this one study involving 22,000 students.
      Your illogical leap from this study to the notion that income is tied to our genes is even more mind-boggling.

      • Jamie Carter

        “Your illogical leap from this study to the notion that income is tied to our genes is even more mind-boggling.”

        Janice, as an english teacher I would expect your reading comprehension skills to be much better then this.

        I said that educational achievement is un-related to income levels. Not that they were related. I provided an example to show why this casual relationship is constantly mistaken as a direct link. As for the article, there are now many and I have read most of them. There is no doubt in the literature that genes don’t have a significant impact on intelligence and IQ at this point. You can pretend this is the only 1 but your ignorance is not my concern.

        You are correct though, genes do not 100% control outcomes in many cases rather they influence them, poor choice of wording on my part. Genes don’t control your height or facial features… they influence them. It doesn’t negate the fact that your IQ and education aptitudes are influenced significantly by your genes and not by low, middle or high income.

        I know as a card carrying VNEA member this idea that if you are simply paid more money you can do a better job is the gospel, but the fact is it just isn’t true.

        You may also find these articles interesting though I suspect you will discount it too.

      • Jamie Carter

        I replied to this but it’s not showing up…

        Janice, there are multiple studies that show this… it isn’t even debated anymore in the scientific community. You can pretend it doesn’t exist, that’s your right and that’s exactly what I would expect from an educator.

        You can ignore the facts, but that doesn’t make them go away.

        One last point of clarification, you are correct genes don’t control intelligence they merely infuence them, the same as they do with hair color, eye color, height, facial features etc. Controlled was a poor choice of words on my part. I would caution against discounting the significance of that influence. Genes A only influences your blood type, but that doesn’t mean if Mom is AB and Dad is AB that you can be type O.

      • Jamie Carter

        “Your illogical leap from this study to the notion that income is tied to our genes is even more mind-boggling.”

        Most importantly this is not at all what I was saying.

        The article says educational achievement is linked to income. I merely pointed out that in fact that’s not the case, genetics are far more important and gave an example explaining how the link between income and educational achievement is casual at best rather then a direct one.

  • Cheryl Ganley

    The cost of education is just too much for the amount of children in the system. The education budget is $1,593,000,000 to educate 85,460 students. For FY 2013-2014 it cost $18,840 per student. UVM without room and board is only $24 more! We do not need a cost shift we need a cost decrease!

    • Jamie Carter

      “We do not need a cost shift we need a cost decrease!”

      Actually I’d say we need both. It’s not a single problem, but rather multiple problems.

      A.) How do we stop rising costs and make education more affordable.

      B.) How do we make paying for education more equitable.

      C.) How do we improve outcomes while not adding costs.

      Each one requires it’s own answer.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    When we experience costs that are way beyond the rate of inflation in health care, govt designs grandiose plans to tackle the problem. The same can be said for Vermont’s preK-12 system and it’s funding reliance on property taxes and all we hear is crickets. The problem can be traced exclusively to Montpeculiar’s most powerful lobby, the public sector union known as the VTNEA. They own the VT democratic party. We pay almost twice the national average per pupil and have one of the lowest teacher:student ratios. It’s not rocket science. The personnel inflation, teachers aides, para-educators and one-on-one tutors are bankrupting Vermont taxpayers and the VTNEA and their biggest benefactors, the VT democratic party laugh all the way to the bank. Meanwhile enrollment continues to decline as more people leave Vermont for greener pastures and the standardized test scores remain abysmal. Why should we pay Cadillac taxes for a Kia education?

  • Dan Carver

    Regardless of economics, parental approach to education is THE most critical element outside of raw intelligence, for successful students. There are poor and affluent families that do create learning environments and invest time and energy to their child’s education; school is a supplement for these families.

    Other parents invest their discretionary time on their own personal pursuits and either drag their children to all of the parent’s events or dump them off with others. Their expectations are the school district is responsible for their child’s education; end of story.

    Our education system cannot fix this issue! A major driver of our cost per student is the fact we have passed legislation in support of the uninvolved parental approach—the school will be the place to fix all the social ills of the world. If the forum is truly interested in creating a transformation, then end this approach, which will reduce costs significantly.

    Additionally, it is time to change the model of having children segregated by age; there are many studies showing this is an archaic structure—the only time in one’s life when you are arrayed in this manner. Children can change rooms for various subjects and be assigned based on level of knowledge for the particular subject. I am not concerned with bullying, as our teachers have had a gazillion hours of training in this area. Yet we will get results. I can think of no greater incentive for an 11-year old child, or their parents, to focus on mastering a subject than to have that child in a class with a bunch of 6 – 8 year olds.

    Forrest Gump wasn’t blessed with intelligent genes, yet his mother went way beyond the call of duty to ensure her son had a good education. Are parents involved? Go to school for parent-teacher conference night. The majority, if not all, of the parents that take time to inquire how their child is doing, are the ones who are committed to their children—and it is not just the “rich” parents; it is diverse economics at its best.

    Tweaking the current system will not transform the outcome or the cost. Yet, we can change the approach and we will improve the outcomes and lower costs, which will ultimately lower taxes.