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Guest editorial: Vt. needs to fix school funding; start by changing governance

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Posted on January 5, 2015 |
By Emerson Lynn



Speaker of the House Shap Smith has spent the past couple of weeks asking Vermonters for their ideas on how the state can reduce property taxes and still maintain a high quality educational system.

He should be careful for what he asks.

It’s less an issue of how to do it, than it is who will do it. And it’s not unlike the debate over the governor’s single payer health care proposal, which imploded when the numbers just didn’t make it feasible. It’s a debate about a state with a middling per capita income spending above its means.

It’s not an issue of who pays, it’s the fact that the total bill is too large, and that the spending trajectory is unsustainable.

If Mr. Smith is serious about bringing financial relief to Vermonters (as it relates to education financing), he will focus the debate on the unavoidable and the obvious: We are operating with 24,000 fewer students that we had 17 years ago and we should have a cost structure that reflects that decrease. We have a pupil-teacher ratio of 9-1, whereas the average in New England is 12-1. Nationally, it is 15-1. We have as many special education students now as we did in 1997, when our enrollment was at its peak. We have 20 percent of our schools with class sizes of between two and nine students.

That’s the nut of the problem.

As with the single-payer issue, dealing with it in a meaningful way comes with political risk. The Vt. NEA will fight any proposal to reduce the number of teachers/para-educators. Affected towns will resist the thought of having their schools closed. And the special education community will oppose any move that lessens what they have or redefines what constitutes eligibility.

Opponents will use two key arguments: the first will be the claim that reductions will affect the quality of education offered, the second will be one of local control and how schools are at the center of a community’s existence.

If Mr. Smith wants to be successful in his effort to lower costs, then he must be able to counter those objections.

To accomplish that, several things need to happen. The first is already in place, which is the effort by Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the department of education. She’s traveling the state explaining the difficulties and guiding communities toward more productive discussions. In a state of our small size, that’s invaluable. Her work should be disseminated more widely. The second is to communicate more openly and more convincingly. Most Vermonters know about their own schools and nothing beyond.

Mr. Smith will then need to understand that legislators will be unwilling and unable to legislate the change in direction, and the specifics necessary to actually affect change. Any effort to do so would only complicate matters.

That’s why he should begin the session where it left off last spring — with a renewed attempt (and some rewriting) to change the state’s school governance structure. If things are left as they are, with essentially every school having its own school board/defenders, then it will be next to impossible to change things and to change them in a way that will endure.

If this change in structure were to occur, then the Legislature (and the governor) would be better positioned to lead, with the newly formed regional governing boards being given the responsibility to implement.

The Legislature, for example, doesn’t have the competency to direct how each school district should increase its teacher-pupil ratios. But the Legislature could set general standards to, for example, raise the teacher-pupil level to the New England average, and then leave it up to the new regional boards to get the job done the best way they see fit.

It’s through this sort of relationship that the state could accomplish its two primary goals: to reduce costs and to maintain quality.

— Emerson Lynn/St. Albans Messenger

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