John McClaughry: The final phase of mandatory school mergers

Editor’s note: This commentary is by John McClaughry, the vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

In 2015, after literally more than a hundred years of intermittent trying, Vermont’s educational leadership succeeded in giving its bureaucracy the power and duty to force mergers of Vermont’s public schools into larger districts (Act 46).

After a cautious nudge in the direction of consolidation by Commissioner Richard Cate (2007), Commissioner (later the first Secretary) of Education Armando Vilaseca put his energy behind the drive that led to Act 46.

In his final appearance before the House Education Committee in 2013, Vilaseca said: “We don’t need 272 school districts.” A committee member inquired whether Vilaseca thought regionalization ought to be legislatively mandated. Vilaseca replied that school board members and superintendents told him “we’ll never do this ourselves. There has to be some sort of hammer.”

After that session Vilaseca told a reporter that “after seven or eight years, if the districts haven’t joined together, then the state will come in.” Within four years Vilaseca’s hammer had fallen, and the AOE and State Board plowed ahead to complete the mandatory consolidation process.

For decades the advocates’ argument was that the existence of 272 school districts in a state with (by 2017) 80,000 public school students produced fragmentation, duplication, inefficiency, inequalities, economic cost and educational shortcomings. Their remedy — always the first resort of people with the centralizing mentality — was to convert public school governance into a far more orderly and manageable state-led system, that would produce “savings,” administrative conveniences, and better outcomes.

Act 46 declared that its purpose was “to encourage and support local decisions and actions.” Most Vermonters probably think of “local” as their town or city. In the public education world, “local” means anything beneath the state level, operating under state-determined rules and requirements.

A more candid statement would have been, “to support local decisions among the limited options defined and offered by the Agency of Education and State Board of Education.” The educrats have always bemoaned, at least privately, the intrusion of local school boards, parents and taxpayers into what ought to be an enterprise conceived and guided by experts.

A 2018 agency report asserted that “many of Act 46’s goals are becoming reality: enhanced educational opportunities for students, increased stability for school staff, intra-district school choice, collaboration in school governance, and more efficient utilization of tax-payer resources.” It reported that 206 districts in 185 towns had merged into 50.

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Later that year the State Board issued its final report on Act 46 implementation. Its state plan includes a mind-boggling bestiary of various union districts, indicating which mergers were “possible,” “practicable,” “possible not practicable,” and “practicable not possible.” The knotty issues included consolidating finances, unifying bonded debt, closing underpopulated buildings, transporting students to new locations, shuffling districts among supervisory unions, and placating voters.

What it doesn’t mention is achievement of a longtime goal of the teachers union and school boards association: shrinking opportunity for parents to make choices of schools for their children’s education. Yes, parents in unified districts gain choice among that district’s public schools – but parents in tuition towns swept into unified districts lose the choice of other public schools and, most importantly, of independent schools.

At least two tuition towns (Chelsea and Ludlow) saved parental choice by closing schools before being forced into a merger. Ten Northeast Kingdom tuition towns formed the NEK Choice district and thus preserved their K-12 choice. Other towns, like Westfield and Elmore, were swallowed up and lost choice. Once a town enters a unified union school district, it will prove to be almost impossible to ever get out.

Thirty-three small districts that were ordered to merge are currently fighting for their independence in the Supreme Court. Their lawyers argue that the agency and board flouted the law the Legislature passed, made no findings that their mergers met any definition of “necessary,” and ran roughshod over established voting rights, and that the Legislature forcing towns to merge may even be unconstitutional. The best outcome the plaintiffs can hope to get would be a court-ordered administrative do-over.

Probably the best – albeit most revolutionary — reform now would be for the Legislature to establish universal parental choice with state-issued portable tuition scholarships, and let the merged districts and independent schools compete to attract pupils and revenue by offering personalized learning opportunities, “flexible pathways,” quality results, and services that meet the needs of their customers.

No presently conceivable Vermont Legislature will do this. That idea would terrify the constellation of “stakeholders” determined to defend their power, privileges and benefits against any uprising of parents demanding better education for their children.

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