Rick Gordon: Revising Act 46

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Rick Gordon, Ph.D., who is a member of the Westminster School Board and the director of the Compass School, a private nonprofit school for grades 7-12 in Westminster.

Thankfully our legislators are considering modifications to Act 46. While consolidation may make sense in some areas of the state, it doesn’t work in all areas, is unlikely to achieve the goals of the act and, most importantly, will harm the education of our children. Sadly, many of the supposed advantages of consolidation focus on convenience for central administration, simplification for the business office, or simply compliance with state mandates that are not necessarily in the interest of children or teachers.

Act 46 sets out two major goals — economic efficiency and equity. On both grounds, the current emphasis on one “preferred structure” fails to meet these goals, at least in some areas of the state.

I worry that we misinterpret local control as a question of governance rather than educational quality. The ultimate determinant of a student’s educational experience is the quality of teachers, the school principal, and programs at the local level. Student learning is not an abstraction of educational policy or governance — the most effective schools know students well and are responsive to the individual needs of kids and their families. The more bureaucratic and standardized our schools become, the less responsive they can be to the unique needs of the children they serve.

Local control really is about school-based responsiveness to the needs of kids, the initiative of teachers, the input of the community, and the leadership of principals to shape an inspiring, dynamic, personalized learning environment that works for every child. Decisions made in the superintendent’s office or by a unified board can’t be based on knowing the uniqueness of our children or the unique needs of individual schools. Teachers will shy away from pursuing exciting new ideas that would have to be sold throughout a larger district — it’s hard enough to create something new at the classroom or school level. The idea of districtwide implementation of a teacher-initiated effort is nearly impossible. Parent voices will be subdued by having to go up the channel from principal to the superintendent.

Local control really is about school-based responsiveness to the needs of kids, the initiative of teachers, the input of the community, and the leadership of principals to shape an inspiring, dynamic, personalized learning environment that works for every child.

 

Rather than increase opportunities in our school, opportunities will be reduced by a merger. We have a superb, school-run food program connected to our local farms and our school garden. This is likely one of the first programs that will be cut in a merged district to simplify management and to eliminate the inequity of one school’s superior food service. We have other offerings, such as an experiential learning program not offered by other schools. Even if our surrounding schools tried to replicate these programs, they will not be comparable, since you cannot replicate the skills or enthusiasm of the staff who lead these unique programs. The quality of educational offerings is not only about program titles but depends on the personal commitment and energy of individual teachers or community volunteers. This is not something that can be easily replicated from site to site under the guise of equity.

Equity is not just about equal opportunities and offering the same experience for all — true equity means providing for the different needs of individual children to achieve the best outcomes for each. This kind of attention to individuals happens best at the individual school level.

In terms of economic efficiency, it is ever more clear the savings of consolidation are minimal at best. In the budget-making process, local boards scrutinize the budget line by line, even to the level of individual teacher salaries. Often times, local taxpayers review the board’s budget with equal scrutiny. Merged district budgets will undergo much less scrutiny, if only because the numbers are bigger and the complexity greater. We have seen this absence of oversight for years at union high school budget meetings that sometimes draw single digit attendance. Town meetings have hundreds looking at the budget to keep costs contained — fewer people looking at a district-wide budget will invariably lessen scrutiny and lead to higher levels of spending. The experience in Maine with consolidation has shown the increase in administrative costs from mergers. We don’t need more central office administration in Vermont. And the loss of involvement in town meeting undermines the long tradition of participatory democracy that is fundamental to our Vermont community identity.

We have already seen some of the problems with the consolidation of special education and busing. We have lost some of our best teachers who have been moved to other schools. Cumbersome protocols from the central office make it harder to move personnel when an afterschool staff is sick or a new child needs services. There are no provisions for “unmerging” if the promised benefits don’t result. In Maine, many districts are trying to go back on consolidation mandated there. While the current superintendent and merger committee can make promises now about keeping local programs, not closing schools or not moving students, there is no saying what a future superintendent or board may decide. There is no knowing how individual communities will be impacted if their local school becomes part of a larger district — the merger is permanent, regardless of the impacts.

There are likely ways to improve equity and opportunity and to realize fiscal savings with creative exploration among our local school districts. Our board was enthusiastic about serving on a study committee to explore this. We were sorely disappointed to find our local merger committee was limited to pursuing only a merger following the preferred structure and had a short timeline for follow-through. Extending deadlines and opening the process to alternatives will help achieve the goals of Act 46 while allowing flexibility to the circumstances in different regions of the state. I hope our policy makers can keep attention on how best to provide for the well-being of our children and not on any single structure that may not work in different parts of the state.

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  • Re: “… local control as a question of governance rather than educational quality.

    I worry that individual parents are curiously not included in the above determination of ‘educational quality’ except as they have individual standing, as a voter, in their local school district elections and budget approvals. What this typically means is that a simple majority of voters, including regular citizens who may or may not have children in the public schools, can dictate their version of education quality on everyone else…

    … everyone with the exception of those parents who can afford to pay both the property taxes that fund the public school budgets as well as the tuition required when sending their children to alternative independent schools like the Compass School you direct.

    This governance discriminates against low and middle income families and provides anything but ‘equal educational opportunity’ to the minority. Act 46 does nothing but exacerbate the inequities.

  • edward letourneau

    I understand the writers wish, but concept is being responsive to the “unique needs of the children they serve,” is not going to bring good jobs to Vermont.

    • edward letourneau

      The thumbs down here should tell us where the jobs coming from? One of the biggest problems we have is 20% of the school population in special ed, while the national average is 10%. That is taking money from the other 80%. Act 46 does nothing to correct this, and all school choice would is allow the other students to be sent somewhere else, raising costs for the home owners without a reasonable return on the investment. What company is going to bring great jobs to place like that? How many have in the past 20 years?

      • Jay Denault

        Well, Mr. Letourneau it’s actually 16% of Vermont’s school population. IDEA, Mainstream block grant funding pays 60% of the initial cost, intensive, and extraordinary reimbursements pays 90% of the cost above that, and schools are able to tap into Medicaid reimbursements on behalf of each student. As far as Act 46 “doing nothing about special education costs” you should read the Act 46 funded “Odden & Picus” report. It features the work of Nathan Levenson who recommends limiting the number of qualified students to 12%, eliminating all school aids, paraprofessionals, returning all handicapped students to the classroom with no less than 17 students per one teacher, who is expected to teach all students, ranging from severely emotionally disturbed to the gifted and talented. They call it “differentiated instruction”, sounds good doesn’t it. As far as companies moving to Vermont that won’t happen until the State stops taxing everything but the air we breath!

  • Kathleen Scott

    The author is spot on and we have to do everything we can to stop this relentless march to consolidation.

  • Margaret MacLean

    Thank you Rick for your commentary. The rural parts of the state, who due to their history, geography, patterns of operation and local values do not find the ” preferred” option a match, deserve a pathway to meet the goals of the law. These districts should have an opportunity to consider all their options – preferred, conventional and alternative. All options should be judged against the same standards. H/S 15 simply levels the playing field and allows districts to do this. The 60 plus districts in this position are willing to do their part and they currently have no pathway to comply with the law. H/S15 is needed now as that number is only going to climb over the spring.

  • Jody Normandeau

    Thank you Rick for an excellent commentary. There can never be “equity” even if every child has the same teacher in the same classroom. Children are different. They are all individuals and deserve to be treated as such. Education needs to get away from the bean counters or Vermont will join other states in having a poor educational system. Top down proposals never work. Let us get back to the community level where children’s needs are known and addressed. In large consolidated areas a child is not a face but just a body. It doesn’t work.

    • But there can be ‘equal educational opportunity’, as Vermont Statute directs.

      Unfortunately, ‘get[ting] ‘back to the community level’ does not address every childs needs. School Boards and Budgets are determined by a simple majority of voters in any school district, whether or not they understand the needs of each student.

      ‘Top down proposals never work’…whether the top is at the State level or the school district level.The only way to assure ‘equal educational opportunity’ is to allow parents to choose the school, public or independent, that best meets the needs of their children.

      • Vaughn Altemus

        Allowing people of means to add any amount they can afford to the value of a voucher to attend the school of their choice while people of limited means are restricted to the value of the voucher alone does not produce anything like equal educational opportunity. The proposition that allowing the purchase of all the opportunity you personally can afford is equality is laughable.

        If you were serious about equal educational opportunity you would require that parents and students accepting vouchers must limit their tuition and fee payments to the amount of the voucher.

        “‘Top down proposals never work’…whether the top is at the State level or the school district level.”

        I see you’ve now moved from the State Public Education Monopoly to the North Hero Public Education Monopoly, which could not possibly provide a top down solution meeting the needs of the approximately 30 students enrolled in its school.

  • Randall Szott

    Increased accountability is one of the five stated goals of Act 46, but as your excellent commentary states, “There are no provisions for “unmerging” if the promised benefits don’t result.”

    There has been quite a bit of soaring rhetoric put forth by merger committees (including ours in Windsor Central) about improved educational outcomes and economic/administrative efficiency. But who will be held accountable when these fail to materialize? The merger committees will leave cleaning up the mess made of schools and communities to others. They may claim the responsibility will be shared by voters that passed the plans, but those votes are taking place in the context of manufactured fear at repercussions imposed by the state.

  • Thank you, Rick. Your article speaks to the condition of many schools in southern Vermont – including Marlboro School.

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