The ranks of people opposed to the controversial school consolidation act (Act 46) are rapidly growing. The Vermont School Boards Association has expressed grave displeasure with the provision that penalizes local school districts that spend more than the state thinks necessary.
Districts exploring merging into larger unified districts are complaining about the confusion and uncertainty of the process. And friends of parental choice in the 93 tuition districts fear – rightly – that the merger pressure will force them to abandon choice.
The latter two issues are interconnected, and fortunately there is a happier solution than the mare's nest of Act 46.
Imagine this: the voters of several towns agree to join a larger Unified District. That new district enjoys the combined tax base of the component towns and receives its budget funding from the Education Fund just as if it were one oversized town district.
So far, that is the current plan for unified districts, such as the newly merged Essex Jct., Essex Town and Westford district.
Now suppose the voters, in choosing to create the Unified District, were allowed to choose to make it an "Educational Freedom District". Here's where things get interesting.
As defined by legislation proposed in 2001 by the then-chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Howard Crawford (R-Burke), a majority of local voters could choose to opt their merged district out of the state-controlled public education system. They could, in its place, create a locally-designed Unified District characterized by parental choice for their children, competition for pupils among public and independent schools (and perhaps other educational providers), diversity of educational experiences, and responsiveness to local voters.
The EDF could choose to supply educational materials and technology to home schoolers, allow home schoolers to take selected classes, make use of joint library and cultural resources, and take part in extracurricular activities at public schools. These pupils would count in the Average Daily Membership and thus hold down the district's school homestead property tax rate.
The EDF could accelerate school completion for gifted students and dual enrollment of seniors for college credit. It could offer apprenticeship, community work-study alternatives, online blended learning, and exchange programs for study abroad.
The EDF could exempt teachers from state certification requirements, require periodic subject matter examinations for teachers, and offer merit pay. The teachers union, under state law, could of course try to organize the district, but the district could terminate the check-off of teachers' union dues, disallow agency fees for political activities, and require periodic union recertification elections.
The EDF would be exempt from many state mandates and required supervisory overhead (except for civil rights, special education compliance, and financial accountability). It would be free to lease or share public school facilities with independent schools, and contract for instruction, maintenance, transportation, and management.
It's unlikely that any EDF planning committee would offer a proposal including all of these options, many of which would be intensely controversial. Its job is to offer the voters a proposal which is likely to win majority support.
Most Vermont towns probably would not merge into an Educational Freedom District, but a few would, especially if it were an alternative to the heavy handed requirements of Act 46.
The people of those EDFs would then have the opportunity to design their own innovative educational program for their children. In due course other towns would make similar choices and learn from the experience of the pioneers.
The proposal does not require radical wall-to-wall educational changes across the whole state, but it does allow voters to democratically approve a broad range of locally-favored innovations.
There are two political obstacles to allowing local voters to create an EDF. One is that as in any mega-district composed of formerly separate town districts, the vested education interests will be far better able to organize and deliver the votes to defeat any disturbing (to them) innovations.
The other is this: creation of even one such district would threaten to undermine the overgrown public education establishment. It – and especially the Vermont-NEA teachers union - would leap into full battle mode to protect the iron hand of the Agency, the State Board of Education, and the union over citizens working for local democracy, innovation, greater opportunity for their children, and yes, freedom.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).