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Guest editorial: School consolidation plan less effective if it is voluntary

If the education reform bill passed by the House is what is eventually approved by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, Vermont will have made some significant progress in the march toward a more efficient, less costly education system. It will also put us in the position of being able to use our resources to improve educational outcomes.
But the fragility of the effort is one that will require constant attention. Evidence of this fragility came in a VTDigger.org story in which the Shumlin Administration was quoted as saying it had reversed its position on the House bill and preferred voluntary approaches to consolidation rather than forced.
It turns out that’s not true. Although the administration is open to any and all ideas that push the system toward something that makes more sense, the governor last Thursday said it doesn’t work to allow schools, or school districts to decide whether or not to change.
He’s correct. If we content ourselves with the idea that all schools can operate as they choose — limited only by what the taxpayers say each Town Meeting Day — then we will continue to have what we have, which is an educational system that is not affordable, and one that performs at a lower academic standing than we deserve.
The story came about because an official with the state Department of Education aired some of the concerns that the educational debate has generated. These concerns led Deputy Secretary Bill Talbott to say the department was hearing from a lot of school districts that didn’t like what they were seeing in Montpelier. He said: “It’s really hard to make people do things they don’t want to do.”
He was pushing the idea of encouraging districts to consolidate through tax incentives, and having it be a voluntary decision, rather than districts being required to consolidate.
The story was half right. If tax incentives work, fine, but the work doesn’t stop simply because a school elects to remain as it is. As the governor said on Thursday, the choice isn’t open-ended.
There is not a pain-free way out of this. Since 1997 we have seen a 21,000-student decline in our student population. And this decline is expected to continue until 2030.
Since 2005 the growth in the fund generated to pay for our schools has increased by $500,000,000.
We have the nation’s highest per pupil spending, and the lowest student-to-teacher ratio and the lowest student-to-staff ratio.
Despite the decline in student numbers, and the increase in money spent, our educational outcomes lag other states that spend far less.
As obvious as this need is, the political reality was apparent in State Sen. David Zuckerman’s response to the testimony. He credited the House-passed legislation as something cobbled together to address what the public wanted after a slew of school budgets were defeated last year. On Friday he was quoted as saying: “And now quite a bit of the public is asking if they really wanted what we were interpreting they were saying.”
That will always be the case. Those affected would prefer not to be. But the schools affected are not the only ones to be considered. The way our educational funding system works is that every Vermonter who pays taxes pays a share of every school’s budget.
Taxpayers in Newport pay for the 43 “phantom students” in Rochester.
Taxpayers in Essex pay for the 17 students that comprise the entire school in Windham.
What we are doing no longer works. Our demographics have changed and we have an educational system that must change accordingly.
That is the conversation the House began with its version of educational reform. The Senate may have its own version, but it cannot deviate from the basic premise that change is required, that it is not optional.
Emerson Lynn
St. Albans Messenger

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