Editorial: Is fear of the unkown preventing education reform?

Among the many issues tackled this legislative session, the outcome of several education initiatives was a mixed bag. To its credit the Legislature did expand access to universal pre-kindergarten education to all three- and four-year-olds at a modest cost as 80 percent of schools already had such programs. Combined with a $37 million federal grant to support early childhood education programs, the very youngest Vermonters now have a brighter future than ever before.
Similarly, programs that focus on workforce training, internships and personalized learning plans have been approved in the past two years, making it more cost effective to pursue higher training or education for this subset of students.
But addressing how to make our public education system, K-12, more affordable while yielding better student outcomes made little progress. The House passed H.883, widely known as the school consolidation bill, but Senate committees didn’t take it up in time to cement support. It died in the Senate, technically meaning the bill will have to start all over again next session.
Practically speaking, however, the discussion in the House did move the needle in important ways. For the first time in decades, more folks than ever before understand that Vermont has to get its school costs under control and the notion of consolidation—while not appealing—was at least being considered. Technically, H.883 focused on consolidating school governance by merging Vermont’s 270 school districts into about 50. Opponents were right, however, to assume that such changes could foresee consolidation of school facilities down the road, and the House put in language to that effect: giving local boards five years to make choices as to how to do that.
What’s important in that context is that the state was attempting to define ways to get costs under control, while allowing local school boards several years to figure out how to accomplish those objectives.
What the public must come to understand is that taxpayers cannot complain about high property taxes to fund schools and then remain unwilling to change today’s status quo. The funding formula, based on Acts 60 and 68, is not the problem. The problem is cost per pupil, and with a declining student population that cost needs to come down.
While reducing costs in education is difficult, consolidating schools will reduce cost. There would be fewer buildings to maintain, fewer teachers and more efficient use of space and supplies. It’s also arguable that student outcomes could be improved under a revised system.
But how do we get there from here?
One way might be to follow the suggestion of letter writer Eric Remsen in this issue, see page 5. Eric is a teacher at Rutland High School, a Shoreham resident and a school board member of UD-3. His suggestion is to involve the students – at least at the high school level. It would make a great summer/fall project, and one the governor’s office may be able to coordinate. A summer/fall study committee could focus on two initiatives: discussing the pros and cons of consolidation from the students’ perspective; and then create mock school boards in each proposed consolidated district and play through school management scenarios, including budgets and curriculum development. Even if only a handful of districts could pull this off, it would be a lesson all districts could learn from.
What’s driving a lot of the opposition to H.883 and school consolidation is the fear of the unknown. Residents fear losing control of their school budgets and they fear the consequences on their communities if they lose their community school. One way to overcome fear of change is to demonstrate what the new system could be and how, perhaps, it could be better than the status quo. Within those scenarios, residents could also learn how they would retain control over budgets and discuss ways various school facilities could be used in a new era of education in which the state is pressing for more pre-kindergarten programs as well as beefed up education in grades 13-14, the two years after half school in technical education or less expensive junior colleges that would effectively reduce the high cost of a four-year college degree.
There are good options to pursue. The challenge today is convincing a majority that change is better than keeping the status quo, and then crafting a model that demonstrates a way forward.
Angelo S. Lynn

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