Editorial: Vermont’s town meetings, school votes pose sharp contrast to national scene

Vermonters are fortunate today to live in a state where civic-minded progress overshadows the need by some to blame all things government for the recession and tepid economic recovery.
In states like Wisconsin, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and much of the deep South, taxpayers are taking their frustrations out on the budgets they can control — schools and towns — and selling the future of the younger generation down the drain.
In Texas, school financing is to be cut 13.5 percent or more, around $3.5 billion, reports conservative columnist for the New York Times David Brooks, noting that about “85,000 new students arrive in Texas every year… (but) there will be no additional resources to accommodate them.” In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker plans education cuts of 9.5 percent; in Hawaii, the number of days in a school year are being cut to reduce expenses.
All this violates two of what Brooks calls his three “sensible principles” when making cuts to lower deficits over the next few years. The first principle is to “make everyone hurt” equally across a broad spectrum; the second is to “trim from the old to invest in the young.” The second principle, he says, includes actions like adjusting “pension promises and reducing the amount of money spent on health care during the last months of life so we can preserve programs for those who are growing and learning the most.”
But across most of the country, that’s not happening: “Seniors vote. Taxpayers revolt. Public employees occupy capitol buildings to protect their bargaining power for future benefits negotiations,” he writes. “As a result, seniors are being protected while children get pummeled. If you look across the country, you see education financing getting sliced — often in the most thoughtless and destructive ways. The future has no union.”
Vermont is an exception. In Addison County, all school budgets were approved — and across the state the same story was told. In tiny Lincoln, for example, residents approved a $2 million school bond for renovations on top of a school budget that is 7 percent higher than the prior year. That’s dedication to a town’s youth and understanding a town’s priorities.
And while most school boards successfully held their budgets to small increases or slight reductions compared to the prior year, at least those cuts came about by thoughtful conversation and careful study — not at the dictate of political gamesmanship.
On the contrary, in Vermont, Gov. Peter Shumlin is championing more spending for early education programs and more grants for higher education scholarships — solid investments in tomorrow’s economy and today’s youth. He has adopted the idea of making Vermont “the education state,” which compared to the political climate across the nation makes Vermont stand out like a rare beacon of hope.
The promise here is that by investing in the education and training of Vermont’s students, they will aspire to be the best and brightest — a slogan that used to represent a national aspiration, but which has been silenced by partisan cries to cut taxes and slash spending.
Lincoln Community School Principal Tory Riley perhaps best captured Vermont’s forward-thinking, even in these times, when she said after voters approved the school bond and budget: “Education costs money, and people here have a strong commitment to it.”
Perhaps that’s because town residents know each other well enough to take Brooks’ second principle to heart — “trim from the old to invest in the young” — or that they take his third austerity principle seriously: “Never cut without an evaluation process.”
Vermonters do this more than they may think at their annual town meetings. It’s a process known as one of the purest forms of democracy practiced today, but what makes it work as well as it does is that the meetings reflect a largely unselfish, humble point-of-view that Vermonters naturally embrace — a collective wisdom that adds much to the beauty of this iconic state.
Angelo S. Lynn

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