Politics

Legislative commission looks to force State Board of Education reform

Jeanette White
Sen. Jeanette White, co-chair of the Sunset Advisory Commission, said during a meeting at the Statehouse Wednesday that members should “be bold” and force a conversation about State Board of Education reform. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

A task force will recommend the repeal of Vermont’s State Board of Education in a maneuver to force legislators to change the body’s structure and mandate over the next two years.

Sunset Advisory Commission members conceded the proposal, which would give the Legislature until 2021 to rethink the State Board, won’t be an easy sell. 

“I think we should be bold,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, co-chair of the commission. “I don’t think we should not recommend something just because it’ll be a political mine field.” 

White said the goal is to re-envision the education body, not discard it in its entirely. She said the idea might get pushback, but the redundancies between the state board and the Agency of Education need to be addressed. Other members of the commission agreed. Legislation outlining the commission’s recommendations will be finalized next month. 

John Carroll, the newly appointed chair of the State Board of Education, made his own case for reform during a meeting in September, saying the board could help “shape the future of education in Vermont,” but needed to accept the limits of its authority. 

Carroll told the commission Wednesday that the State Board of Education has found itself in an awkward position since the passage of Act 98 in 2012, which made the secretary of education a cabinet level (and political) position and elevated the Department of Education to an agency. Those changes ceded many of the board’s responsibilities to the secretary and the agency.

Yet the board has continued to play a central role in carrying out some state policies. It made the final decision on Act 46 school district mergers and it continues to oversee administrative duties that should, Carroll said, be under the control of the Agency of Education.

Carroll said the board can still serve an important, non-partisan function for the state, by exploring the big-picture issues around education. 

The question of the State Board’s purpose after Act 98 has been put before the Legislature multiple times over the years, but it always ends up on the back-burner, White said. 

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“I think they just don’t want to deal with it,” she said of her colleagues in the Statehouse. 

John Carroll
John Carroll is the chair of the Vermont Board of Education. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Sue Zeller, the chief performance officer for the Agency of Administration, said the June 2021 deadline would give lawmakers plenty of time to develop a new vision for the board. 

“If you can’t figure this out in two legislative sessions then you really don’t know what it should be doing,” said Zeller, who also sits on the sunset commission.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelburne, who chairs the House Education Committee, said she thought the move was “unorthodox,” but added the board does need adjusting and she’s willing to work on a solution. 

“The State Board of Education might need a new focus,” Webb wrote in an email. “A new role is understandable and I am looking forward to participating in envisioning that new role. I see many opportunities here.” 

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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