MANCHESTER - A public forum organized by a group of local citizens designed to explore statewide educational issues is set for next Wednesday, Oct. 23.

A group of five panelists, moderated by Rob Roper, the executive director of the Ethan Allen Institute, which is described on its website as a free market public policy and research organization, will address the question of what is the biggest challenge facing education in Vermont today, and secondly, what do they think should or can be done about it.

The panelists will include a cross-section of individuals involved in the local education scene. Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Manchester, Arlington; Stephen Dear, the head of school of Long Trail School in Dorset; Weiland Ross, a former school board member from Sunderland and former educator; Alan Tschorn, a school director from Sandgate, and Brian Vogel, a school director from Manchester, will make up the panel.

The idea for such a forum grew out of conversations a group of friends had over time which coalesced into a desire to host an event to stimulate discussion around the future of education in the state, said Barbara Marchetti, one of the members of "Citizens Interested in Vermont Education," as the group refers to itself.

Education spending is increasing even as the number of students in the state between kindergarten through 12th grade is declining, and results from statewide assessment tests don't seem to indicate much improvement in student performance, she said.

"I think we have to do better than that," she said. "We're hoping to bring together this (panel) who will shine a light on these and other educational issues and provide us with some solutions that maybe we can discuss further after this meeting."

Educational issues - both in terms of outcomes and practices, but also of cost - have been a staple not only of local interest but statewide as well. About 15 years ago, state lawmakers passed the last sweeping overhaul of educational financing through what came to be known as Act 60. The statute introduced a statewide property tax as the primary vehicle for funding Vermont's public schools. That legislation was modified somewhat in 2003 with the passage of Act 68. Both pieces of legislation shifted the burden of financing local schools off of local municipalities, with the intent of leveling the playing field so that students from less affluent communities would not be at a disadvantage to their counterparts from more well-off communities when it came to educational resources. Critics of the legislation have contended that it also severed the link between communities and their educational tax rates, making it easier for spending to rise without the same level of accountability.

While talk of overhauling the Act 60/68 structure has arisen from time to time, a majority of legislators have not been able to fashion an alternative that met the test for giving all the state's students reasonably equal educational opportunities while simultaneously reining in costs.

At the same time, assessment tests ushered in by the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 have focused on levels of educational achievement with a goal of having all students, regardless of gender, income status or other sub-groups, performing at "proficient" levels or better by 2014. This legislation has proven highly controversial and the federal education department is pushing a new set of standards, known as the Common Core, to address some of the concerns raised in the wake of No Child Left Behind.

Stephen Dear, the head of Long Trail School, said his focus will be on the issues of cost increases and school choice. Under school choice, parents have the option of sending their children to one of several possible schools, and in Vermont, if a town does not operate its own elementary of secondary school, parents often have such choices. Many towns will also help pay for their students to attend an independent school, like Long Trail. It's an overall plus for the state's students to have such choices, Dear said.

"I continue to be concerned about ensuring it's the right school for the right student and the right opportunity," he said. "Not every school is the same." At the same time, increasing costs are a concern as well, one which he and his colleagues at Long Trail spend a lot of time attacking and monitoring, he said.

Brian Vogel, a school director of the Manchester School District, said that one of his concerns was that too often schools fail to emphasize the importance of rewarding excellence and achievement.

That's especially important for students who may come from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. Instead of motivating them to succeed academically to help them escape those circumstances, schools "manage" their students to cope with it, he said.

"In trying to build their self-esteem and coddle them, we are not doing them any favors," he said. "Rather than focus on giving those kids the tools they need to break out of poverty, we help them deal with it and not be affected or crushed by it."

One example Vogel cited of what could be done to help such schools or student aim higher academically was of one school in Maine which emphasized improving vocabulary. Through a school-wide initiative focused o that, involving all staff members, teachers and administrators, students made dramatic gains, not only in vocabulary but other learning skills as well, he said.

"We need to celebrate success and achievement more, to try to inspire kids to strive for it, as opposed to saying 'everyone gave their best,'" he said. Cynthia Browning, a state representative from the district that includes Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland said her main concern was to focus on what was underway inside the state's classrooms. Too much of the discussion around educational spending and policies had gotten away from that central question, she said.

All the parties involved - parents, teachers, students and educators of all stripes - should check their ideological baggage at the door and look at their responsibilities as well as asserting their perceived rights, she said.

"You have all these power struggles going on that are really divorced from that endeavor," which include things such as school choice, unfunded state and federal mandates, diversion of state education fund money away from education matters to other policy goals, she said. "There are a lot of different ways for good learning to happen."

Rob Roper, the moderator, said he expected to go around the table for the first part of the forum and have each of the panelists address the first question of what they perceived as the biggest educational challenge facing the state. Then, in the second half, panelists will discuss, in a more free flowing and conversational way, the second question - what would they do about it.

A question-and-answer session will follow, he said.

The issues raised by this forum, as well as a series of three debates the Ethan Allen Institute is planning to host in conjunction with the more liberal-leaning Public Assets Institute this coming winter - one of which they hope to stage in Manchester this coming January - are important and critical to all Vermonters, Roper said.

"Education is the foundation of our society, economy, culture - all those things," he said. "We need to make sure we're getting the best out of the system that we have. I can't think of a bigger issue that effects us all in such a dramatic fashion."

The forum is open to the public and free of charge. It will start at 6:30 p.m. and will be held in the groundfloor meeting room of the Mark Skinner Library.