Education reform is a central issue for the House of Representatives this legislative session. House Speaker Shap Smith has said the Legislature must find ways to reduce education spending and look at new ways of funding the system.
Beth Holtzman, Chris Tormey, Marty Strange and Susan Clark, all steering committee members for Vermonters for Schools and Communities, gave testimony on Tuesday.
The group is calling on the Legislature to “end the statewide residential property tax and shift to an income-based funding system for all Vermont residents.”
“We know that there is a serious property tax problem in Vermont, and even if spending levels were to be lowered, we still depend on the property tax too much to fund education,” Strange said.
Vermonters for Schools and Communities is also asking the Legislature to put a stop to state expenditures out of the Education Fund that are not related to public education; adopt standardized accounting systems for all school districts; require that any new state education mandates include information about implementation costs for local schools.
Members of the group urged lawmakers to avoid adopting a one-size-fits-all approach to education reforms that could have a disproportionate impact on small schools.
Chris Tormey, a teacher at Lamoille Union High School, and a school board member and resident of the town of Cabot, said his three sons got a great education at the Cabot School where they had an opportunity to obtain high test results, engage in team-building opportunities, and take instruction from teachers who understand individual learning styles.
VTDigger is underwritten by:
Tormey said losing the Small Schools Grant, which brings more than $160,000 to Cabot, would hurt his town’s school and other small schools in Vermont.
If state subsidies for small schools are stripped away, he said, “It would be much harder to have those schools be viable financially.”
Holtzman, a parent and school board member from Middlesex, said after her community experienced a dip in enrollment, the school’s enrollment is now holding steady, and is not facing empty classrooms like some Vermont schools.
Middlesex did take steps to look into a merger with a neighboring community but found that it would have had negative impacts, particularly on students with special needs. The communities backed away after a phase one merger study, Holtzman said.
“One model is not going to fit all,” she stressed. She asked the committee to look “solutions that need to acknowledge our existing assets and build on the investments that communities have already made.”
The group presented the committee with a chart that broke down a number of the proposals that have come into the Legislature and showed where they stood on about 50 different pieces of the educational landscape which are now under a microscope, including the Small Schools Grant, the hold-harmless provision (also known as the “phantom” student phenomena), a call to mandate consolidation, and so on.
The group also left its platform with the committee and encouraged members to listen to the concerns of people who live in small towns.
“The word consolidation does not appear in our platform,” Strange said. He said the group supports consolidation when the decisions are made locally. He said he “feels like we will see more [consolidation] if people don’t feel forced, if they feel it is their decision to make.”
“It’s the 21st century. Closing schools and putting kids on long bus rides is a 20th century solution,” he continued. “There are options to get curriculum to kids besides just putting them on buses and moving them around.”
Middlesex town moderator Susan Clark, who has written a book on democracy, and on Vermont Town Meeting, said schools are deeply woven into the fabric of Vermont.
“We can’t simply pull on those strands of school without affecting all those other parts,” Clark said. She spoke about “social capital,” and explained how it is “the web of connectedness that makes us feel responsible for each other … Do we trust each other? Do we volunteer? Do we tolerate differences well?”
“Social capital is very important,” Clark said, calling it the “WD40 of a society.”
“Local is probably the thing that Vermont does best,” she continued. “There are other states that are desperate for what we have … It’s more pleasant to live in a place that has high social capital.”
She urged the committee to not push one large model, but instead to “support improving information flow, offering communities lots of different options and letting communities work it out for themselves and among themselves.”
VTDigger is underwritten by:
Clark impressed upon the committee the importance of citizen engagement. “We have a feeling that we can walk into the Legislature and talk to you … it’s really remarkable.” Citizens need to feel connected to government decision making, she said.
Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford, the ranking member on the House Education Committee, said “We all bring our experience to the table, but now our responsibility is even bigger — we are responsible for all 82,000 students and a $1.5 billion budget.”
Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, suggested what was local long ago, no longer defines local for Vermonters today.
Buxton explained her own life journey as a fifth-generation Vermonter, raised in Orwell, but who, for her higher education and her work life, has gone on to live in many other parts of Vermont. She said she feels equally concerned for public school children in Danville as Fayston as Tunbridge as Middlesex.
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he represents four communities in a region where five towns already do many things as a regional entity together.
Redefining “local,” and moving schools and communities to work with neighbors to address the need to reign in education spending costs and rising property taxes, is part of the task facing the Legislature this year.
The current generation, said Buxton, those with kids in schools now, don’t necessarily hold tightly to the view of local being their town only, she said.
“We’ve already transcended that,” said Buxton, saying “this locally driven protectionist view … I don’t think that that’s where Vermont is right now … Perhaps we have to look at community in a different way.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:29 a.m. Jan. 28.
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.