The seeds of Act 46 were sown in the spring of 2006 when the Douglas administration's education commissioner, Richard Cate, proposed that Vermont merge school districts to tackle the twin problems of declining student enrollments and rising costs. Cate's plan would have reduced the number of Vermont's school districts from 280 to 58, replacing supervisory unions with districts and creating school boards to oversee those districts.
"Cate really jump-started this initiative," said Peter Peltz, former vice-chair of the House Education Committee.
Cate is a native Vermonter, whose education bona fides include a stint as Chief Operating Officer of the New York State Education Department and head of the Vermont Superintendents Association. His white paper outlined the history of governance in Vermont from 1777 until 2006.
Cate wrote that for a small state Vermont has a lot of school districts especially when compared to other states. When the state was first established there were multiple school districts within towns. This structure persisted until 1870 when the Legislature passed a law asking school districts to merge into town school districts. There were not a lot of takers, so in 1892, lawmakers made it mandatory and the number of school districts slimmed down from 2,500 to less than 300.
A few years later, legislators passed a law that allowed towns to join together and those that did became supervisory unions with one superintendent serving multiple school districts.
More than 100 years ago, The Carnegie Institute was asked by Vermont to consider the common school system and make recommendations for changes, according to Cate. The Institute recommended that school districts be "gradually enlarged to coincide with the regional high school districts with the eventual consolidation of such districts into compact administrative units, including all schools under one competent head." That was in 1913.
In the middle of the last century the union school district movement swept through Vermont, but in its wake the state was left with more, not fewer, school districts. The result is an education governance system with numerous configurations including: town school districts, union high school districts, city school districts, incorporated school districts and unified union districts.
Act 46, the new education law is attempting to streamline the way Vermont governs its schools to improve educational opportunities for students while getting a better return on taxpayer dollars.
"The complexity of the governance structure is a big reason why Act 46 passed. For years and years, legislators were trying to get a handle on what is happening in the schools in respect to performance and cost," said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.
Vermont is a top spending state on education but the complicated way that it delivers education makes it difficult to follow that money.
"We have not done much in changing education in a couple hundred years, this is a good start," said Rep. Larry Cupoli, R-Rutland, a member of the House Education Committee.
Add into the mix that lawmakers had asked districts to consider voluntary mergers with previous laws, Acts 153 (2010) and 156 (2012), and while a number of school boards looked at merging few pulled the trigger. Faced with a constant loss of students and hike in per pupil costs that resulted in the failure of school budget votes, lawmakers felt they had to do something.
"Act 46 was a taxpayer relief situation," said Cupoli. "We are a high-spending state at risk of chasing off our wealth," he said, before adding, "it is in the interest of our state to do something sooner rather than later."
At the same time, lawmakers heard loud and clear that localities didn't want a top down approach. So they asked school districts again to voluntarily consolidate and offered tax incentives to jump-start the process. That was the carrot, the stick is an ultimate deadline when the state will tell districts that don't comply what they have to do in an effort to create a sustainable statewide governing structure.
For now school boards are facing tight deadlines to design a new way to deliver education.
"We are asking a lot of our school boards right now," Mace said.
Peltz sees Act 46 as an opportunity for Vermonters to come together and take a collective deep breath and consider what would excite them about a new learning experience.
"The challenge is the timeline – can the public get past the reactive stage to the Act and see this as an opportunity for positive change, or will they recede into the common malaise of cynicism? Peltz said "Vermont has a rich history of civic engagement and social caring, this will be a test of: 'can we do better?'"