Editorial: Senate can tweak H.361, but must keep ball rolling

As the Senate takes up the House passed education bill, H.361, the goal in the legislation is to take small steps toward progress, allow for local control and not threaten schools or communities with repercussions that cause undue hardship. The legislation does this, ironically, by being purposely imprecise. But it’s that imprecision that critics have attacked.
By establishing a push toward Pre-K-12 school districts with a minimum of 1,100 pupils, schools and communities will be encouraged to merge forces and consolidate the smallest of schools, though not forced to do so. This will partially be accomplished by phasing out the funding of some small school grants and funding for “phantom students,” which also accomplishes a reduction in state expenses. The true benefit of the law, however, will be encouraging communities to pursue the cost savings and academic improvements gained by merging in schools that are cost-effective and achieve the highest academic performance for students.
The numeric challenge facing Vermont has been reported numerous times: Vermont’s student population has been on the decline for the past couple of decades and projections show it declining into 2030. Keeping the status quo is not viable. We have 20 percent of our schools with classes of between two and nine students, making the cost per pupil exorbitant and the educational programming problematic for many small schools. Importantly, that is a cost all Vermonters bear because it is rolled into the statewide financing formula and shared among districts.
The solution, however, is not just to propose large districts, which on the surface accomplishes little more than a reshuffling of paper work, cutting out a few meetings and perhaps reducing a staff member or two. Rather, to get at the nut of the issue, the thrust of the legislation is to encourage the consolidation of schools. That’s where the savings occurs. The legislation does not specifically call for school mergers, but it allows it to happen over time and with the vote of the community. If it is obvious that a school is too small to be run economically, then it’s imperative that district leaders demonstrate to students and parents of that school how different options could offer better outcomes. The pragmatism of this approach is that it’s a grassroots, ground-up response to factors that affect parents and their children.
Many opponents, primarily Republicans, have been quick to charge that the law does too little to crack down on school spending and reduce property taxes — the GOP’s Holy Grail. But to do so would have been the legislation’s kiss of death. Top-down change, with the state issuing mandates to communities to make more rigorous cuts, would have surely been met with staunch opposition and never seen the light of day.
Discard, then, criticisms of the law as ineffective, or too little too late. That’s tough-sounding rhetoric of a minority party that would not be responsible for the consequences of more severe cuts to Vermont’s schools, not to mention more onerous state mandates.
What H.361 does accomplish is to establish a process to address the state’s declining school population, push schools toward consolidation while letting each district and community make that call for themselves, and begin to get the state’s pupil-teacher ratio from nine to one — and our staff-to-pupil ratio of 4.6 to 1, both the lowest in the nation — to a level at which we can afford to pursue other academic agendas to achieve greater outcomes.
The law isn’t perfect.  Spending caps were put in place as a political response to demands that taxes be curbed. The caps are not an effective method to create better outcomes. They also tend to reward high-spending schools and punish schools that have been frugal. If the Senate can find a way to remove the caps and still get the legislation passed, so much the better.
The primary objective, however, should be keeping the bill intact enough to pass in the Senate, then the full Legislature, so the governor can sign the bill into law. It is an important first step to right-sizing our school system to fit changing demographics, while also cutting costs and improving student outcomes.
Angelo S. Lynn

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