TOWNSHEND >> A primary goal of Act 46, Vermont's new education governance law, is to provide equal opportunity in the "quality and variety" of educational offerings.
But the principal at one Windham County school believes the statute may do the opposite. Dorinne Dorfman, who leads Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, is sounding that alarm both locally and in Montpelier, urging lawmakers to slow down and take another look at the socio-economic impacts of school redistricting.
Dorfman, who touts Leland & Gray's test scores and its co-curricular offerings, is warning of "substantial" negative impacts if Jamaica elects to drop out of the current union district. In addition to Leland & Gray potentially losing students, Dorfman worries about supporting those who would remain — including many school-choice students who come to Leland & Gray with special needs.
In Act 46 testimony prepared for the House Education Committee, Dorfman argued that school-choice research and demographic trends at Leland & Gray "demonstrate that students and parents select schools based on social class, with more affluent families choosing those in higher-income areas." The exodus of the union district's students via expanded school choice would "reduce our advanced programs, increase our costs, lower school achievement and dim students' futures," Dorfman told legislators on Nov. 18.
Dorfman is envisioning a future in which Leland & Gray no longer exists due to Act 46 changes. She says L&G students would be "scattered and ignored in distant schools" as a result.
"Few could stay after school due to lack of transportation, and their parents wouldn't drive 60 miles round-trip to support them," Dorfman wrote. "Their graduation and college admission rates would plummet and their victimization and participation in criminal activities may increase. Their talents that Leland and Gray cultivates would wane without their caring teachers as mentors and coaches and neighbors."
Dorfman is concerned about widening — rather than narrowing — the achievement gap between low-income students and their more affluent peers.
"My greatest fear is that we're going to have a two-tier system in Vermont where there are schools that provide lavish programs and there will be other schools with high concentrations of students with special needs and low-income backgrounds," Dorfman said.
Act 46, approved in the 2015 session, is the Legislature's attempt to address persistent problems: Educational costs and taxes continue to rise even as enrollment drops, and some Vermont students in smaller or poorer schools don't have access to the educational opportunities enjoyed by others.
The law imposed a spending increase threshold that is designed to curb tax hikes in the short term. More significantly, Act 46 makes a strong push for new, larger school governance structures that would force many smaller, independent districts to merge in the next few years.
Act 46 has provoked controversy. In particular, the spending thresholds are under fire.
And even as proponents cite the financial flexibility and greater services available in larger, merged school districts, critics — including Dorfman — wonder whether the state is on the right track.
"I think we do need to step back," Dorfman said.
Leland & Gray is part of the sprawling Windham Central Supervisory Union, which features 12 boards and eight schools in an area that is rugged and, for the most part, sparsely populated. But the regional middle and high school has a relatively solid base in the five towns it serves — Brookline, Jamaica, Newfane, Townshend and Windham.
It is unclear, though, what the future of the union might be under Act 46. For instance, like many school boards across the state, Jamaica officials are weighing their options. Those include new arrangements that might allow school choice.
In minutes from the Jamaica board's Oct. 20 meeting, some attendees expressed interest in alternate educational structures. One commenter said that, if Jamaica Village Elementary School and Leland & Gray "are not working for my children, I would like a choice, an option about where to send my child." Another said that the lack of high school choice is an "obstacle" for those who might otherwise choose to live in Jamaica.
At the same meeting, documents show, two board members from the private Mountain School at Winhall reported that their facility would be able to accommodate all Jamaica Village School students if that school would close.
Documents show four merger options are under consideration in Jamaica, and only one of those includes keeping Leland & Gray as the town's high school. Each of the others involves various degrees of school choice ranging from choice in grades 9-12 to choice for all students at all grade levels.
The Jamaica board has taken no action. Further discussion is expected at a Dec. 15 meeting, when the school board expects to form at least four study committees, Chairwoman Stephanie Amyot said.
"We hope to dispel misinformation and lay the groundwork for productive discussion, research and eventually a proposal that our town can be comfortable voting on," Amyot said.
Rep. Oliver Olsen says the exodus of one town from the district would not necessarily spell doom for the Leland & Gray union. He said "there are lots of different scenarios" and that the union may look entirely different after the Act 46 process plays out — for instance, one town could leave, but others could join.
Olsen, who is an architect of Act 46, said he remains a believer in the merits of forming larger school districts in Vermont. Finding the right fit for the state's schools "is going to require folks to move outside the comfort zone of what they know today," Olsen said.
That does not necessarily mean an expansion of school choice: Olsen said Act 46 does not change existing law regarding choice in Vermont. But in response to Dorfman's concerns, Olsen points out that four of the five towns he represents — the exception being Jamaica — already offer high-school choice.
"The students I represent in those four towns — students of all means and all abilities — are served incredibly well," Olsen said.