Education

Summit turns to education financing conundrum

Students took the stage for a panel presentation at the education summit to share what they had learned, as well as their insights about moving forward. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Students took the stage for a panel presentation at the education summit to share what they had learned, as well as their insights about moving forward. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Change is coming to Vermont’s public education system — whether by design or as a consequence of inaction.

That was the consensus of 200 participants at the close of a two-day summit on education finance and equity. They settled on little else, but most appeared to walk out of the DoubleTree hotel in South Burlington with a deepened understanding of the challenges facing Vermont’s public education system.

The Green Mountain Imperative, an invitation-only symposium hosted by the Vermont Business Roundtable with eight partner organizations, sought common ground among students, parents, teachers, school boards, administrators, nonprofits, businesses and state agencies.

Day 1 generated big ideas for improving Vermont’s public education system, closing the achievement gap between students from rich and poor families, and making the whole system easier to pay for.

Day 2 entailed whittling those ideas down to a handful of actionable goals. The participants didn’t quite get there. But they did hash out a handful of goals, with varying levels of buy-in.

Members of the Green Mountain Imperative planning team corralled more than 20 competing priorities into a handful of discussion areas to keep the momentum moving on Day 2. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
Members of the Green Mountain Imperative planning team corralled more than 20 competing priorities into a handful of discussion areas to keep the momentum moving on Day 2. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

The development of a sustainable financing system for education was a major focus, as was a more streamlined governance structure.

Lawmakers will tackle both issues in the upcoming biennium in the aftermath of contentious election season. A 9-cent hike in the statewide property tax rate drove many disgruntled voters to the polls earlier this month. As a result, Republicans nearly won the governor’s race and the party scored gains in both the House and Senate. Proposals for reforming the education funding formula have been batted around in the House Ways and Means Committee for four years, and the House in 2014 passed a district consolidation bill that was ultimately shot down by the Senate.

At the conference, participants said they wanted to see better accountability for school performance and a shift toward more student-driven learning. Many also wanted more of an emphasis on early childhood education and a realignment of resources to support a continuum of education programs from birth to work. Participants also wanted to see better coordination of education and human services programs for children who are in poverty and who are more likely to underperform academically.

House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said education reform is an urgent priority of the upcoming legislative session. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger
House Speaker Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, said education reform is an urgent priority of the upcoming legislative session. Photo by Hilary Niles/VTDigger

Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, a co-convener of the summit, was joined by several representatives. No senators attended the event, though VBR president Lisa Ventriss said 10 were invited.

Smith said people want a framework for changing the education system and latitude at the local level. “Different places are going to have different needs and require different resources to get to similar goals,” he said.

Gov. Peter Shumlin has repeatedly said he does not think mandatory consolidation can be successful. Rebecca Holcombe, the secretary of the Agency of Education and a member of the governor’s cabinet, has embarked on a fall road show with the Vermont School Boards Association to encourage struggling districts to find efficiencies.

Holcombe said the state has very low student-to-teacher ratio and one of the highest per-pupil spending levels in the nation, and that investment isn’t paying off in terms of achievement. The challenge to reconciling both quality and cost is Vermont’s Rube Goldberg-like governance system, small local communities, and scarce resources, she said.

The challenge isn’t just a matter of scale, however. Schools are providing more social services for children. As Smith put it: “The education system is becoming an arm of the Agency of Human Services.”

Addressing that problem touches another issue: barriers. Smith says the walls between case workers and educators serving the same families and between school boards within districts in Vermont’s complex governance structure must come down.

“We have to figure out a way to stop pointing fingers and point in the direction we want to go,” Smith said.

Tom Pelham, a former state representative who also headed the finance and tax departments in the Dean and Douglas administrations, said changes to the system are inevitable, regardless of what was or wasn’t decided at the summit.

“Change is going to happen because the force is outside this room,” Pelham said.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, says public pressure is a driver of legislative action. Better communication with the administration and the Senate will be necessary to bring any proposal “across the finish line.”

The education financing discussion was familiar ground for many at the summit.

These conversations have happened many times before, said Mary Powell, president and CEO of Green Mountain Power. It’s going to take “a lot of courage and a lot of leadership” to finally translate dialogue into action, she said.

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  • John Freitag

    One has to wonder whether workable solutions can come from Montpelier. Since 2010 they have greatly added to the property tax burden ( see the VLCT policy paper on Education funding) and at the same time have not addressed the State’s own budget problems.
    It would seem the top priority for the State should be to deal with its own systemic budget shortfalls ( now estimated at 100 million) before trying to radically centralize control of our schools.
    It might be wiser to let change come from the bottom up than solutions now being developed for the legislature by Shap Smith’s secret committee. John Freitag

  • Dave Bellini

    This sounds like the real “nothing burger.”

    The problems are excess SPENDING and as stated in the article, education is becoming another human services agency. It’s up to voters to say “no” in March. Property taxes are too high and they need to be lowered. Lowering property taxes has to become more of a priority than Vermont’s education spending mania.

  • Tom Licata

    “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”

    Progressives have become a parody onto themselves and their idolatry onto themselves blinds them to this:

    A parody of tragedy.

  • Luann Therrien

    This one paragraph says alot about how money is being wasted by the State.

    “That was the consensus of 200 participants at the close of a two-day summit on education finance and equity. They settled on little else, but most appeared to walk out of the DoubleTree hotel in South Burlington with a deepened” understanding of the challenges facing Vermont’s public education system.

    ” 200 participants at the close of a two-day summit on education finance and equity.” & ” walk out of the DoubleTree hotel”

    I understand they need a hall big enough for 200 people that they can set up and use for 2 consecutive days.

    But how much did this two-day summit cost Vermont tax payers?

    Hall had to be rented, that’s obviouse. How much was that?

    Was food served? If so what was the price tag on that?

    How much more?

  • As someone outside the educational and legislative communities, I spent two days there and was impressed with the depth of the dialogue and the broad commitment across all sectors to fix this.

    The educational administrators, teachers and kids who were there understand and are adamant about fixing our Byzantine and expensive governance problem among others. They also understand the connection to escalating property taxes and the impact on Vermonters, including themselves. The problem lies very much in ourselves and many of our own local choices.

    We have become adept at hectoring and blaming others without bothering to read and understand the nature of our problems and our role in creating them.

    To get a glimpse of what we face take a look at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvNmAF7kC3U and talk with your legislator and neighbors.

    Less time spent in competitive carping and more time spent understanding will help us all.

    P.S. Niles’ Digger coverage on the event was spot on.

    • Dave Bellini

      “…. and are adamant about fixing our Byzantine and expensive…”

      I clicked the link. I didn’t hear any solutions to excess spending. Problem identification is easy. So, after 2 days of jawing, what the plan to lower costs?

  • Mary Daly

    The education system is becoming an arm of the Agency of Human Services . Again I say, “Schools should concentrate on educating children and refer problems to the existing programs within the Agency of Human Services. Why are we paying twice for the same services?” I was appalled when I learned that our elementary schools had added Guidance Counselors to the staff. When I asked why they didn’t refer to programs already in existence, the response was, “We can’t.” No further explanation.

  • Luann,
    Not a dime of taxpayers money was spent on this..look at the issue and get out of your own head for a minute. You could help.

    • Kevin McGrath

      Let us be honest, that summit is a joke, it’s nothing more than a “Dog and Pony Show” by the very people who created the problem. They have no solutions; change is coming and it won’t come from them and least of all from Shap Smith or anyone associated with state government. The change will come from the scam collapsing from its own weight when two basis economic concepts “The Fallacy of Composition and the Law of Diminishing Returns” lay Vermont’s economy to waste in the very near future. It will put an end to school funding greed for the next 20 years and there is nothing these people at this summit can do change that reality. Change is coming and it won’t come from anyone associated with education in Vermont.

    • Luann Therrien

      Ok,
      Who paid for it then?

  • ray giroux

    Kick the Feds out of our State and start educating our children to be prosperous in a Vermont economy.

    The Progressives have had their day, it became dark very early that day.

    Let’s reestablish our 10th Amendment Rights to State Sovereignty and chart our own course, in line for what is good for Vermont, not what is good for the Progressive Federal/State Government.

    If Vermont has such difficult laws for companies to overcome in order to open shop here in Vermont, where will our children go after being educated – out of State to work where the jobs are.

    We need to educate our children to our more Agrarian Society.

    If we need a product, that product should be manufactured here in Vermont. Plain and simple.

    So, let’s get back to basics, let’s start building our State economy through education and embrace our State Sovereignty. Let’s start manufacturing our needs here at home.

    That would be a true noble education idea.

    If you want your children to be educated by the Government and Corporations, so be it, they will leave the State – to big Corp or Gov.

    Tear down the centralized reeducation camps!

  • Thomas Powell

    Vermont holds the dubious distinction of having one of the highest per capita spending rates for education in the United States. Ideas such as district consolidation to save administrative costs are like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Out of control spending on special education, salaries and other big ticket items require legislators and administrators to grow some spine and say No to the advocates who stream through the statehouse, hat in hand. There was a report yesterday in which Rebecca Holcombe, the new secretary of education, was extolling the “investment” of public funds in universal preschool. She stated “Longterm it will save costs …” This is no doubt a fine idea, but Madame Secretary, are you completely tone deaf to the property tax crisis in this state? These “investments” are bankrupting us and driving business owners and retirees to safe havens. I predict there will be a train wreck of defeated school budgets on March 3, 2015 as the education spending crisis boils to a head. With the appalling lack of leadership in Montpelier, it is high time for the towns to push back, and forcefully so.

    • Tom Pelham

      I was disappointed the conference didn’t focus enough on addressing Vermont’s very high cost structure, especially since the Conference was sponsored by the Business Roundtable. However, this was not a kumbaya meeting of the education community either. It appeared well accepted that change is in the air and understood that many folks beyond the conference walls have had their fill of a dysfunctional education funding system. The frustrations of those outside the conference, as expressed last town meeting day and during the recent election, have driven the education community inside to find solutions to calm the waters around education spending in Vermont. So, frustrated taxpayers, you’ve got their attention and keep the pressure on.

      For those outside the conference walls, here’s one statistic offered by Education Secretary Holcombe that stood out in this regard. Vermont’s education staff to student ratio is 4.7 to 1. The national average is 7.8 to 1 with Massachusetts at 7.8 to 1 and New Hampshire at 6.2 to 1 and both having strong student outcomes.

      Secretary Holcombe made the point that if Vermont’s ratio were 5 to 1, we would save $74 million per year and by extension, if it were 5.3 to 1, we’d save $148 million or about 10% or current expenses and still have a ratio well below the national average and well below our New England neighbors. By any measure, that’s a lot of savings and clearly within reach if as Mr. Powell notes, our legislators and administrators “grow some spine”.

      • Jamie Carter

        or we could go to a ratio of 6.2 (the same as NH) and save $350+M… more then enough to provide tution for all VT students and still have some savings left over…

        Or enough to nearly eliminate the primary homestead tax all together.

  • Paul Richards

    Nowhere in any of this did they indicate that they recognize the biggest problem relating to our public education funding dilemma; public sector unions acting virtually outside the reach of the taxpayers who are forced to pay for them. Their contracts are “negotiated” behind closed doors with their lawyers and with no direct input from the voters.
    Until the taxpayers get true representation in the process that results in the largest (by far) portion of the money spent on education they are just pi__ing in the wind. They can have as many summits as they want but there will be no real change until public sector unions are abolished and we take back control of the process. Until then we are just moving players around the chess board in a game of stalemate.

  • Jamie Carter

    The solutions are simple… they really are. It is sad that 200 “great” minds can’t figure it out.

    Says Shap:
    “Different places are going to have different needs and require different resources to get to similar goals,”

    This isn’t exactly true but the meaning is… Different students are going to have different needs…

    The very simple solution is school choice, where local towns, school boards and voters choose how to run their school and what foci they want to emphasize. Parent’s are given a voucher and are then able to choose to send their children to the school that best fits their childs needs.
    This isn’t new… the progressive bastion of BTV even set this system up with it’s magnet schools. Same principle… oddly the same parties that supported magnet schools are opposed to school choice and vouchers.

    “Schools are providing more social services for children. As Smith put it: “The education system is becoming an arm of the Agency of Human Services.”

    This is a problem that also has a simple solution. Many services provided at schools are covered under medicaid, which reimburses costs for those students. There is no reason that a student who receives services provided by the school that would normally be covered under human services that the school can’t be reimbursed similarly. Or perhaps better yet, human services personnel could have an office at school to deal with these issues when they arise. Either way, again not a difficult problem to solve.

    Financing… shift to an equitable tax, which the property tax is NOT. Replace the primary homestead tax with a flat tax across the board for all VTer’s. No more property tax, just a very simple 3% income tax across the board.

    Cost control… set the amount the state pays per pupil by using vouchers. A school gets that amount per student and if they need more money then that they ask the voters of the town who then bear that tax burdern.

    The only difficult part of this is piece mealing particular points and half measures. What we need is comprehensive reform.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    The problem is simple: too many warm bodies collecting a paycheck, most of them teachers. And Mary Daly hit the nail on the head by citing the ever-expanding role of our preK-12 system acting as a social service agency, a soup kitchen and more recently a free babysitting service. The blame can be placed squarely at the feet of the VTNEA union who owns the democrats in Montpeculiar, lock, stock and barrel. The union thrives with this excess of warm bodies collecting paychecks and promotes the expansion into serving all needs of those with children that they either can’t afford to or choose not to take care of adequately. Nothing will change until we dump the democrat majority in the legislature and elect a sensible (and honest) Governor. Elections have consequences. The rest of the country figured that out a couple of weeks ago but we Vermonters still relish our “utopian” ways while we circle the drain.

  • John McClaughry

    Yet another invitation-only closed-door “summit” of Establishment “stakeholders” (aka “the usual suspects”) to explore how more money can be squeezed out of taxpayers to keep the sprawling public school empire afloat.
    For some real ideas for financing public education , see my September commentary at http://ethanallen.org/commentary-facing-the-school-property-tax-monster/.

    • Jay Eshelman

      John: One can start the process of encouraging the school reforms mentioned in your missive by considering 16 V.S.A. § 822. (c)(1) A school district may both maintain a high school and furnish high school education by paying tuition:
      (A) to a public school as in the judgment of the school board may best serve the interests of the students; or
      (B) to an approved independent school or an independent school meeting school quality standards if the school board judges that a student has unique educational needs that cannot be served within the district or at a nearby public school.

      As I’ve mentioned several times in the past, in Westminster, for example, our 7th & 8th grades are ‘tuitioned’. The various small and large school programs available create a significantly diverse curricula, increased student achievement, lower Special Education costs, high parental satisfaction and, most importantly, cost efficiency. Our ‘tuitioned’ 7th & 8th grade cost per student is 40% less than in our traditional monopolized public school programs.

      All the Vermont legislature need do is expand 16 V.S.A. § 822. (c) to include grades K-12 and encourage local school boards to provide the ‘tuitioned’ independent programs whenever parents request them.

      More than 90 Vermont school districts ‘tuition’ students in one fashion or another. Why the prospect of ‘tuitioning’ isn’t more pervasive is beyond me. It’s the proverbial no-brainer…..which should be right up our alley.

  • Lance Hagen

    I am not sure why they had this ‘summit’ to ‘reinvent the wheel’. If you want to know what to do about the rising cost of Vermont’s education system, just travel across the Connecticut River to New Hampshire. They historically spend only 75 to 85 cents for every dollar Vermont spends per pupil and have equivalent or slightly better educational performance metrics.

    Or go to Massachusetts, which has one of the highest rated education systems in the country and they also only spend 75 cents for every dollar Vermont spends and they have a 35% higher poverty rate as compared to Vermont.

  • Two comments. First: Back in 1957 I started high school at Hanover Park Regional High School – a regional school comprised of 5 neighboring towns. We rode over an hour on the school bus every morning and every afternoon we were expected to do our homework on the bus going home. And we did! No one told me this was a bad thing – most kids went on to college and according to my last high school reunion, most were very successful. Turned out to be a very successful model – one that is still in place today. Second: A few years ago when I was in the House of Representatives on the Education Committee I asked that a summer study be done to identify all of the expenses that are paid through property taxes which by law should be designated as human services expenses and paid for through Human Services. The resulting draft report never so the light of day – speaking of transparency!

  • Ron Pulcer

    Since education is a “life-long” journey, and in some professions like IT, you have to keep learning, it appears that this summit did not cover the other side of Vermont’s “schizophrenic” education financing system.

    While Vermont spends a high amount per pupil for K12, and there is more talk about universal pre-K, when it comes to CCV, Vermont State Colleges and UVM, the State of Vermont does not support higher education to the levels that other U.S. States do.

    Keep in mind that for all the money spent on technology now, whether via property taxes, or grants, the technology will continue to march on. Whatever tablet computer / operating system a student uses in elementary school today will most likely be obsoleted by the time they graduate, go to college and start working.

    Just because some new technology “exists”, doesn’t mean we “have” to use it in K12. Maybe there are ways to save costs using other more traditional approaches. You can “draw” on a tablet computer or draw with paper and pencils / crayons. If you need to, you could still digitize a hand drawing via scanner or camera as JPG file and store on computer drive.

    I still work in IT, but in high school, I never saw a computer (teletype) or calculator until 12th grade. There is something to be said for learning and knowing the basics, using paper and pencil, and then applying that knowledge to computers later on. A computer is a “tool” that we should use, rather than being “used” by technology.

    Any money saved in K12 should be considered to be used to help support Vermont colleges, and LOWER tuition for Vermont college students.

    We are basically spending for Gold-Plated K12, only to drop the K12 graduates into an unaffordable college system.

  • Pete Novick

    I have posted a similar comment before and hopefully I can again.

    If the goal is to lower costs, then the solution is to lower costs.

    Here’s a link to the Vermont Agency of Education 2014 Budget Book, FY 2014 Budget Recommendations:

    http://education.vermont.gov/documents/EDU-Budget_Book_FY2014.pdf

    The FY 2014 budget is $1.593 billion, which comes from three sources: Education Fund – 90%; federal funding – 9%; and General Fund – 1%.

    In public education, there are two major cost drivers: labor (primarily teachers and administrators) and operations, maintenance, repair and renewal of the physical plant.

    Vermont has about 8,400 full time teachers. This would be the largest single budgetary line item. The budget allocation for this line item automatically increases every year as a result of legislature-approved, built-in salary schedule increases and cost of living adjustments.

    Vermont’s total public school enrollment has been declining steadily for 20 years – in fact by almost 10% in the past decade alone. It is projected to continue to decline.

    So, if Vermonters are serious about reducing the state public school budget, say by 2% in real terms year-on-year, then it stands to reason to:

    a. Reduce teacher end strength (FTE) though retirements and other voluntary incentives (buy-outs, early retirement, etc.) and not replace those teachers on a one-for-one basis, and

    b. Close and consolidate schools where enrollment declines warrant that action.

    This is a direct budget reduction process where the projected result can be accurately forecast and does not require any complicated reformulation of the current methodology for allocating property taxes to the Education Fund.

    Using the FY2014 budget request as a baseline for FY2015, here’s what the savings look like year-on-year assuming a real spending reduction of 2 percent per year beginning in FY2016:

    FY 2015 – $1,593,000,000 – Baseline year
    FY 2016 – $1,561,140,000 – Year 1
    FY 2017 – $1,529,917,200 – Year 2
    FY 2018 – $1,499,931,856 – Year 3
    FY 2019 – $1,469,332,479 – Year 4
    FY 2020 – $1,439,945,829 – Year 5

    This example yields an accrued gross savings of $153,054,171 over the first five years.

    That’s real money.

    We need a governor and leaders in the state legislature to say the words: “We are going to spend less (in real dollars) on public education beginning next year.”

    If the legislators we sent to Montpelier earlier this month aren’t saying that, then perhaps we pulled the wrong lever.

    • Ruth Barton

      You mention, as have many others, closing schools. Where are these students then to attend school? Yes, a few small schools have closed and their students have been accommodated in neighboring schools that also happen to have declining enrollment, but what if the neighboring schools don’t have declining enrollment, or just don’t have adequate space for the number of students from the school desiring to close?

      I live in a 5 town supervisory union with one large town & 4 smaller towns. We have a Union high school district, have had since the mid ’50’s. I guess it’s the 6th one in the state since it’s #6. Brattleboro & Vernon have always sent their grades 7 & 8 to the Union Middle school as part of the Union, however, the other 3 towns have kept their grades 7 & 8 in their town elementary schools until last year when Guilford decided to tuition theirs to the Middle school. The middle school was able to absorb those 30 or so students, however, if Dummerston & Putney, the other 2 towns were to desire to send theirs also I’m not sure if there would be room for them as well. And that doesn’t even address if other small towns in the area but not in our supervisory union should desire to consolidate with us, not that I have heard that any of them do.The point is, how much can we hope to consolidate?

  • Nick Spencer

    I can only hope that Art Wolfe was one of the 200 invited to the summit. He predicted most of the problems that have occured since the passage of Act 60 that Shumlin and fellow Senators shrugged off as “unintended consequences” of their lawmaking. Shumlin has never balked at forcing Vermonters to pay for the State’s failed legal challenges with Vermont Yankee or the GMO lawsuits, but apparently he trembles at the thought of having to go up against Alan Ginsburg and the American Civil Liberties Union to find a sensible means of accomplishing “substantially equal” educational opportunity for Vermont students. If one is looking for some potential savings on Education funding it is insane to not look at what the difference is between “substantial” (what the Vermont Constitution requires) and “exact”which was the Shumlin solution of a penny on the property tax raising an equal amount in every town. This thing has been a mess from the beginning and has been the primary driver that has increased the cost of school funding as people found it easier to spend someone elses money. Read a few of Art’s pieces over the years, pretty much smarter than anyone else in the room.

  • Tim Alderman

    Special Education costs have risen over $30 million over the last 5 years and are projected to go up another $15 million over the next year. The number of emotionally disturbed, behaviorally disturbed, and students with mental illness is rising VERY fast. Student population is going down but at a much slower rate than student needs are going up. Behavior in most grades is taught just as much as math or reading.

    First, schools are public places. To anyone that hasn’t been in school since you were a student, take a day off from work and find a teacher in a public elementary school that will let you be an assistant for a day. If you are brave enough to do this, I am impressed. Before you arrive at your classroom, try to imagine what it will be like. As you walk in the door, the teacher might introduce you. In your mind, where are the kids and what are they doing? Try to imagine the class in your mind. Look around at each of the students.

    Are they all quiet? Smiling? Do they all look clean? Rested? Fed? Do any of the them have a dirty Hooter’s shirt on? Are there any students who have such severe autism they can’t stop screaming? Are there any non-verbal kids in wheelchairs and a full-time aide who toilets them 5 times a day? Any kids who refuse to sit down or pay attention? Are any of them swearing at you as you arrive? Because I am describing an actual 4th grade classroom. Was it what you saw in your mind?

    Students today are not the same as they were even 5 years ago. Kindergarteners who arrive to school not knowing what sounds the animals make start behind and leave behind. If they are significant behavior problems they might not spend much time in class. Regardless of ability they are all sent to the next grade where the problem grows exponentially each year. When they get old enough to realize they can’t keep up, they get frustrated, quit, act out, etc. This isn’t an issue caused by a Republican or a Democrat folks, it’s a philosophy of education problem. Schools are not the same today but we are all acting like they are and getting surprised when doing the same thing each year doesn’t seem to be working.

    As a taxpayer I would rather pay for 3 years of pre-K than 12 years of special education. Imagine if every capable kid, regardless of socio-economic background, was ready for kindergarten. Finland did this with HUGE success and they have 8 times our population. We are spending too much money reacting to today’s child while prevention would significantly reduce services needed later on. The first 5 years are so important for development. Love, compassion, how we handle stress and communicate with others are all hard-wired during the first 5 years. If a child spends 100% of that time in an abusive or neglected or mentally ill environment, then what society deems as normal is not being learned. Think about a kid who is essentially feral at home. They always get to do what they want, play games, eat whatever, sleep whenever for 5 years. This student doesn’t have the basic social or educational skills to even start kindergarten. And in 170 days the teacher in that classroom has to teach all of these different kids everything they know to be ready for first grade. And if the teacher can’t do it, they should be fired? What other industry operates like this? Ok IBM technician, here is a sheet of plastic, and apple, and a shoe. If you can’t make a computer chip from each of these items in the next 100 days you’re fired.

    Reality #1: Not every student can or will learn. This is a fact we hate to admit but a student with an IQ of 54 might not ever understand Calculus.

    Reality #2: Not every kid needs what we are feeding them. Einstein and Michelangelo did just fine without ever learning the Common Core and I don’t recall the last time I needed to know the atomic weight of aluminum.

    Reality #3: Not every kid is ready for the same information at the same age. We have factorized education. Which one of us reading this article walked at the youngest age? The point is we all walked when we were ready.

    The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Cutting budgets, cutting teachers and staff, increasing property tax… we have done all of this. It’s like trying to clog a damn from 3 miles downstream. The change must be based on philosophy and not decided by a bunch of paper pushers in the widget business holding a calculator.

    • Dave Bellini

      The part where you make sense is in your definition of insanity. However budgets are NOT being cut, they’ve been bloated. “Cutting” ?? Hardly. The facts are that Vermont has fewer and fewer students but more and more employees. THAT is insanity. And finally, at long last, voters are just barely, starting to push back. Most school budgets pass with little resistance. Now, voters are questioning all this runaway spending and the education empire is in full crisis mode.
      Kids are not different than 5 years ago. It’s more likely that people forget yesterday’s problems and think everything is worse today. Not true.
      Special ed funding needs to be capped. Kids aren’t worse off, it’s just that the definitions have been changed so that every student qualifies for “special ed.” Any parent that wants, can get their kid an IEP. Everyone has ADHD today. It’s trendy. Autism isn’t increasing, just the autism label and the definition is ever expanding. Education has become social services. K-12 is the new parent. Who needs Mom and Dad? In today’s “It Takes a Village” mentality, kids arrive at school and the first thing to do is find out what’s wrong with them. What diagnosis should they have? What’s their disability? How do they need to be medicated?

      • Tim Alderman

        Dave, thanks for your reply. I have been a K-12 teacher for over 20 years and can attest to the difference in kids today. In 20 years I have never had a kid come up to me on the first day of class and tell me to “f*** off”. That was last year in 4th grade when I just asked him to sit down. Ten years ago if a student didn’t pass a course, I could have a sit down conversation with parents to talk about how the student wasn’t participating, used their cell phone the entire time, etc. Now I get angry phone calls from parents yelling at me because “I” did not pass them. Our district level funds our budget each year and let 24 people go last year. Guess what? This year will be no different than last year because we are addressing the ledger issue and not these new challenges in education which you refuse to understand. Again, visit a public elementary school. Be a volunteer for a day. Hang out at recess, lunch, visit the room used for behavior problems. You will leave with your jaw on the floor.

        Many of the complaints with education is with taxes. Nobody wants to pay more into a broken system. So which is the more logical argument? Lower taxes? Or change the system? Which is the better choice for Vermont’s children and which is the better choice for “you” as a tax payer? Fight to lower taxes! I agree! But fight to make a change that will result in lower taxes. You can let 200 teachers go in Vermont so your taxes are lower and next year, test scores will be the same (if not lower) and next year the special education budget will go up another 15 million dollars. Firing 200 teachers will not offset that cost. The fact is that there are more one-on-one aides, more special educators, more psychologists, and behavior managers as a result of actual mental and physical illness. I agree that some kids are over labeled with something like ADHD but what about the one that brings a knife to school? 10 year olds that describe oral sex to other kids or know what heroin feels like? Get in a school man!!! It is NOT the same as five years ago and 98% of my colleagues would agree. Talk to counselors and ask for anonymous stories about how many kids are sexually, physically, and mentally abused and neglected. For one example, the heroin problem in VT has gone generational. Schools are getting students of addicts and dealers now and because districts don’t want the public aware of how many suspensions or behavior incidents there are, tolerance for negative behavior has gone through the roof! Heaven forbid that the community see 50 suspensions and 2 expulsions in a week. 100 students held back? Again? Who wants to send their kid to that school? Nope. Everyone stays quiet and no child is truly left behind. Too many are just pushed into their own level of incompetence until in later grades with label them with a learning disability–thereby creating the problem we are paying for.

        My argument is if you really want to make a difference, let’s stop complaining about unions, politicians, political parties, and how we all don’t want to pay more. Nobody does. My point is “I” don’t want to pay more for the same garbage that fails a decent percentage of our children. Letting teachers go, blindly cutting budgets, teaching the same as we always have, it has ALL been done before with little or no success. If we changed our philosophy, put students first, and not treat them all like widgets in a factory, many of our problems could be prevented and none of us would have to pay more to keep reacting to them. Saying “no” to more taxes is a short term fix for “you”. Changing our school philosophy is a long-term fix for all of us.

        • Tom Pelham

          Tim…I’m not buying the hysteria you’re selling. You paint our school system as some sort of urban jungle yet our schools produces results among the best in the nation. Certainly in any statewide system there will be pockets relatively more problematic, but overall, the system works at a high level. If it were as you describe, the signs of systematic failure would be rampant. I’m a product of Vermont’s school system as are my children and I served on a school board for eight years. The Vermont you describe is far from the norm.

          So get a grip and don’t be a victim. When you come across a child and parents that are intractably disruptive, you may have to resort to this to let them know who is in control:

          Title 16§ 1162. Suspension or expulsion of students

          (a) A superintendent or principal may, pursuant to policies adopted by the school board that are consistent with State Board rules, suspend a student for up to 10 school days or, with the approval of the board of the school district, expel a student for up to the remainder of the school year or up to 90 school days, whichever is longer, for misconduct:

          (1) on school property, on a school bus, or at a school-sponsored activity when the misconduct makes the continued presence of the student harmful to the welfare of the school;

          (2) not on school property, on a school bus, or at a school-sponsored activity where direct harm to the welfare of the school can be demonstrated; or

          (3) not on school property, on a school bus, or at a school-sponsored activity where the misconduct can be shown to pose a clear and substantial interference with another student’s equal access to educational programs.

          (b) Nothing contained in this section shall prevent a superintendent or principal, subject to subsequent due process procedures, from removing immediately from a school a student who poses a continuing danger to persons or property or an ongoing threat of disrupting the academic process of the school, or from expelling a student who brings a weapon to school pursuant to section 1166 of this title.

          • Tim Alderman

            Tom, thanks for the input. I did neglect to mention the valedictorians that head off to ivy league schools. There are plenty of students that get by just fine. I am also a product of VT schools as are my children. My point is that over the last few years, a small percentage of the students I have described is increasing very quickly, long after you (and maybe your kids) were in school.

            I also apologize if some of the examples startle you but they are a reality. Nationwide we see stories of kids bringing weapons to school and telling their friends who they are going to attack. That usually results in expulsion. In some schools in Vermont it’s a 1-day suspension with no notification to parents of kids in the same class. The policy is only as good as those who implement it.

            This number of students, as you pointed out is small–but rising quickly, creating extra cost. As the article points out, what “role” are schools supposed to be playing because as student enrollment goes down, costs keep going up. Instead of just saying “no more” need to take the time to create a long term plan so that we don’t just fire a bunch of new teachers next year and end up with another tax increase a few years later.

            Over the last 10 years, classroom teachers have increased by 8%, aides 34%, and student support services 350%. Five years ago, troubled students made up less than 2% of student population. Today it is between 5-10%. In a school of 500 students, that’s in increase of 10 students with behavior problems to 50-100 students. Significantly troubled students? Up to 1-3% from .5%. These are kids that need an adult with them, a counselor, and frequently need to be removed from class. A very small amount of these kids need full-time services outside of school which costs the taxpayers huge amounts of money.

            I would like to see communities get more involved in schools to make a difference because that is the only place change will come from. I personally would rather be paying to prevent problems than just keep asking for more money to react to them.