Editorial: Slaying the dragon of education reform

Bristol’s Rep. Dave Sharpe might have just assumed the mantle of dragon slayer, if things go well with his new post as chair of the House Education Committee, or less favorable titles if things don’t go well. And, frankly, the odds are a toss-up.
The stated task the Education Committee faces is nothing short of Herculean: to restructure the financial system, bring down costs and reduce the property tax burden, while also improving student outcomes.
Not only is the task elusive, but the process involves shifting through varying legislative proposals each of which will represent a political constituency that feels they are currently being wronged. Legislators from property rich towns, like Stowe and Killington, have groused ever since Act 60 went into effect in 1996 that they were being asked to pay an unreasonable share of taxes to support school systems outside their region. They want a new funding formula. Other communities and constituents just want a system that drives costs lower not higher, and still others point out the inefficiencies in the current model and suggest consolidation of governance is the only way to initiate the reforms necessary.
To say that Sharpe and his colleagues on the Education Committee will have their hands full may be the understatement of the political season. But if anyone can get a handle on this beast, Mr. Sharpe just may be the man for the job based on his work as a long-time teacher, and his dozen years of service on the House Ways and Means Committee; that is, he understands the teaching environment well — for all its strengths and shortcomings — and he understands tax policy and state budget restraints. That’s a great start.
House Speaker Shap Smith noted as much in a story in today’s Addison Independent in which he explained his choice of Sharpe as committee chair: “Dave has a deep, deep commitment to quality education for kids, which comes out of his experience as a teacher,” Smith said. “He’s also been deeply involved in (school financing) for the past three or four years, and I thought his experience would be really helpful on the committee.”
Sharpe also has set some early indicators of guidelines he expects to follow, while keeping an open mind on any and all initiatives. The principles behind those guidelines, he said, would include three primary tenets:
• to enhance the opportunities for low-income kids and inspire them — and all of our students — to go on to education beyond high school.
• to resist any bifurcation of the school system, which means he would not allow a system where those of means have one avenue and those without means have a different avenue.
• nor should the legislature try to make a one-size-fits-all solution to school funding.
What Sharpe will focus on, he said, is addressing some “long overdue structural changes,” while acknowledging that each school is different and needs the independence to develop its own solutions.
“One of the things I came to realize over the last year was that school districts are really different. Education is really different across the sate. To prescribe a single solution out of Montpelier is probably not going to be a particularly good answer or well received… What we need to do is figure out a way or a path so that school districts move in the direction of what’s best for their communities. I don’t think it can remain the same, but I am reluctant to prescribe a particular solution from Montpelier.”
That’s the right mix of being willing to embrace change, while also being wise enough to know that a top-down mandate may not work as well as a solution that evolves from each school community and district. With those cautious instincts and three sound principles on which to operate over the next two legislative sessions, with luck he’ll do more than tilt at windmills. 
Angelo S. Lynn

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