Act 46 and school choice
It is too soon to determine exactly how bad a mistake our Legislature made when they passed Act 46. The most generous opinions range from "not a good thing" to "total disaster." The act was based on a false premise from the beginning.
The belief was that the ever increasing pouring of money into the school systems could be slowed down by changing the 'governance' of the school districts. It is a nearly unanimous opinion that something must be drastically wrong when an economically struggling state with a dwindling student population constantly increases our education spending to the point where we spend the most, or second most, money per student among the fifty states.
The term 'governance' is a bit of education jargon with a vague meaning. It generally refers to the way our 240 school districts arrange themselves into various combinations and elect school boards charged with providing an adequate education for the students in each district. These boards are autonomous and have the option of either operating a school in their district or to not operate a school and pay tuition to send their pupils to an out of district school. The districts can also combine in several ways to form some kind of 'school union' or 'regional district' to operate schools.
The result of all this local control over the years is that Vermont does not have an actual state-wide school system. What we have is a hodge podge of schools operating under an accumulation of school laws passed over at least fifteen decades. There is no integrated set of school laws which apply universally across the state. These laws were passed ad hoc to solve dozens of local problem situations as they arose. No attention was paid to the concept of the need for a scheme to create a universal school system in the state.
Locally, the Bennington-Rutland School Union was created with seven districts that operated five elementary schools under the governance of nine school boards plus the Union Board. The BRSU expanded several years ago when they were joined by a combination of five districts that had formed themselves into something called a "RED" district. So now we have twelve towns with fourteen school boards
in the school union's governance structure. The other extreme locally is the Battenkill Valley School Union which consists of two districts operating one K-12 school system governed by three school boards. The rest of Vermont's school districts are similarly combined into various combinations that only vaguely conform to a common pattern. Meanwhile, the situation described before in which the costs of education increase relentlessly while the student population dwindles continues on its' merry way. No demographic predictions claim that this pattern will be reversed.
Faced with the real threat of a tax payer revolt, the Legislature decided to solve the problem of rising costs and disappearing pupils by reducing the number of districts and boards by passing Act 46. The act forces all existing districts to realign themselves into fewer, but larger, districts to make 'governance' simpler.
Their "Wizard of Oz" logic is that reorganization will miraculously save millions of dollars and end the cycle of ever increasing education costs and taxes.
The Legislature did not foresee that forced combinations are not a simple matter; nor did they understand that the combinations could not happen unless many districts would be forced to go out of existence in order to realign. They attempted to solve the problem by not solving the problem. They tried to camouflage the real force of the law by mandating that by 2019 all districts should have about 950 pupils. Not much direction was given, just a time frame and a numerical goal to reach. They said that no district would be forced to close its' school, but they also mandated that when several districts combine they will all cease to exist as separate units and will become part of the newly created single district governed by one school board.
This provision wipes out in a few sentences the concept of local control, which up till now has been the Holy Grail of most education thinking in Vermont. The idea that geographic proximity plays a role in getting pupils to school is ignored. The most problematic mandate in Act 46 is the requirement that in order to combine all of the districts involved must have identical numbers of grades and identical provisions for school choice. This means that if a K-6 district merges with a K-8 district they will lose their choice of where to send their 7-8 grade pupils, unless the K-8 district agrees to lose their 7th and 8th grades and offer choice instead. There are other matters such as representation on the new single boards, ownership of assets of the former districts, which are not fully realized by most of the public as yet, but which will need to be reconciled. The position of the Legislature and State
Agency of Education is that, "we have invented a new game, and defined the goals of the game, but the actual playing of the game is not our job. Good luck."
So far, complying with Act 46 has resulted in two situations. One is that the 'low hanging fruit' is picked. Identical districts with geographic proximity have merged into new districts rather seamlessly. The other situation is that mass confusion reigns. No one wants to give up what they now have. Becoming convinced to join voluntarily into an unknown situation is a hard sell. Financial matters do not seem to be the main issues. Likewise, geographic proximity has been largely ignored in some of the preliminary discussions being reported.
The real issue complicating combination is the matter of school choice. Districts with total school choice want to keep it. Likewise, districts with partial choice are equally adamant that their 'right to choose' be protected at all costs, even if it only involves one or two grades. Some districts are even considering dropping out of the state system and becoming independent schools to protect their choice.
The solution to the school choice issue is very simple, but it requires political courage on the part of the Legislature. Oops!! There's an oxymoron for you, but I'll lay out the obvious solution anyway. School choice as it exists in Vermont is not a right nor is it a privilege extended to all. School choice is an option that is actually available to only a few students because it is based on the accident of their residence. If they live in a town which at some point was too poor to finance their own schools, they get choice. If at some point the town decided not to finance their own school beyond a certain grade level, they get choice. Or, possibly, the existence of a private high school in town provided an alternative to financing their own high school so they also get choice.
The only way to make the Vermont system a truly public education system and provide all students with the same opportunity to choose the school that they feel is best for them is to make school choice a universal privilege. Every student should be able to attend any public school in the state that they wish to attend. To guarantee that true choice actually exists, universal acceptance will have to be guaranteed. No public school could deny enrollment to any applicant, regardless of residence or other considerations.
Once the initial shock wears off, two beneficial results of true school choice will occur. One is that an educational market place will be created. Schools will raise their game in order to keep or attract students. Education dollars will be spent with
better effect. The education playing field will become more level. The other is that Act 46 can progress much more smoothly without the tooth and nail fighting over choice. If there are any actual savings to come from changing governance they will occur. If some schools eventually are forced to close due to forced combinations, the parents will have the option to choose what they feel is the best educational opportunity for their children.
Universal school choice is a win-win solution to Vermont's education dilemma. It would end the unfair choice situation that exists now. It might even slow our population decline by giving younger families an educational incentive to either
remain here or to re-locate to here. It is worth a try. Continuing to patch the potholes in our current system with a series of temporary fixes has not worked at all.
Weiland Ross lives in Sunderland.
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