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.
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.
TIME FOR EDUCATION REFORM
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.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
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.
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.