Editorial: Vermont Senate is right on track with education reform

The Senate Education Committee’s unanimous approval of H.361, the House-initiated education reform bill, gives new life to the bill that was erroneously reported as floundering just a week earlier. On the contrary, what the Senate Education Committee did was emphasize what has always been a part of the proposal: that the bill’s measures do not force small schools to close or force consolidation, but rather encourage those steps through state incentives with the community’s support — and only then when other factors, like geography, are taken into consideration.
The message the Senate Education Committee rightly understood from school boards, parents and school administrators threatened by the legislation, was that the bill should not mandate a one-size-fits-all approach, even while initiating measures to reduce the cost of education.
In that respect, the Senate version of the bill gives it a softer edge, while leaving some of the cost-saving measures intact but still giving local communities autonomy to act on their own.
Importantly, what the bill leaves intact — and what is often understated — is that the legislation also gives local taxpayers more incentive to take control of local spending by reducing state funding for practices that defy common sense. Specifically, the legislation continues a phasing out of the state-subsidized small school grants and funding of so-called “phantom students” that shelter small schools from the full brunt of operating systems that are not cost effective.
That aspect of the legislation is nothing less than coming to grips with economic realities: Scale matters, and when the state’s average teacher-pupil ratio is the lowest in the nation and our costs are among the highest, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out we should take steps to change the equation. Without mandating such change, this legislation puts into motion actions that will encourage some communities to adopt measures to work to improve education outcomes while also coming to grips with the state’s high costs of education. It’s a part of the conversation that the public was clamoring for, and needed to be addressed by this Legislature.
Hopefully, the Senate and House versions will reach agreement on common language and the measure will be passed by the full Legislature and sent to the governor for his signature. If so, it will mark the first significant change in the state’s educational policy in almost 20 years — reflecting the changing demographics of the state and moving to a system where education silos are broken down and encouraged to work cooperatively among larger districts to the optimal advantage of the student. It’s a first step toward rethinking how best to educate Vermont’s students, and how to maximize the considerable educational assets and resources we have. The discussion should and needs to continue as the needs of our students evolve.
—Angelo S. Lynn

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