Act 46: What is it all about? An overview
Act 46 is historic, groundbreaking legislation; that much we know already. What acts 60 and 68 did in 1997 and 2003 for changing the way education is financed in Vermont, so will Act 46 overhaul how it is governed, directed and organized.
How it will play out, and how Vermont's more than 270 school districts will look in 2019, when all the schools are supposed to have gone through a consolidation process, is what we don't know yet.
With an eye toward helping Vermonters and anyone else who may be interested in this historic — and, some will add, complex legislation — passed in May 2015 by the Vermont Legislature, the editors of the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer have assembled this collection of news stories, opinion pieces, editorials, and letters to the editors that explore the statute from various perspectives.
Whether you agree with Act 46 and its goals or not, our purpose here is to assist our readers in understanding the law which represents the most sweeping change in educational governance in Vermont for more than 100 years.
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The goals of Act 46 are:
• To level the playing field so that Vermont's students get substantially the same educational opportunities and quality regardless of where they go to school;
• To improve the state's existing educational outcomes that students are currently achieving;
• To promote transparency and accountability;
• To make the operation of all the state's schools more efficient and do that at an affordable cost.
Act 46 was enacted against a background of overall declining enrollment in Vermont's public schools. At the turn of the century, there were more than 100,000 students enrolled in public schools from kindergarten through Grade 12. As of 2014, that number had dipped below 90,000.
At the same time, fewer students were costing the state's taxpayers more to educate. While the number of students has been declining, the number of teachers, teachers' aides, para-educators, administrators and other "adults in the building" were holding steady — to the point the state now has the lowest ratio of staff to students in the nation, at less than 5-to-1.
Steady pressure on the state's property tax, by which most education costs are paid, kept building. And in 2014, a large number of local school budgets — 36 (the highest in recent times) — were defeated at town meetings and had to be re-voted. That prompted the lawmakers into action.
Act 46 was the eventual result.
The law describes two main paths for school districts to merge and consolidate.
One, called a "preferred governance structure," describes a single school district — known as a "supervisory district" — where one single school board oversees the administration of the schools within its borders. This supervisory district may have been one district prior to Act 46, or it could be formed from several comparable districts merging together, serving a minimum of 900 students. Such a district is responsible for meeting all the educational needs of students from pre-kindergarten through Grade 12.
But since many of the state's districts don't align neatly in terms of the grade levels they offer instruction in, Act 46 offers districts the chance to form an "alternative governance structure." In essence, it's a supervisory union comprised of member districts serving a minimum of 1,100 students. Such districts also would be governed — ideally — by one school board. The law calls for alternative governance structures to have the fewest number of districts "practicable," meaning districts that offer roughly the same levels of instruction come together to form one unit. But there may be some districts that are so different they require their own school boards; however, this is something the state's education agency is not encouraging.
Act 46 offers financial incentives in the form of property tax breaks on a sliding scale. The tax breaks decrease over time between now and 2019 for districts that submit consolidation proposals by July 1, 2017. The sooner a district consolidates, the bigger the tax break.
If a district can't find a merger partner or partners by 2019, and if it can't persuade the state board of education it should remain independent, the state board, along with the Agency of Education, may perform that job for them.
That's it in a nutshell, but as always, the devil's in the details.
What happens to some of the state's smaller schools? Will they be able to survive?
What about school choice, where residents who live in a town that doesn't operate its own school or only operates an elementary school up to sixth or eighth grade can choose to send their children to neighboring ones? Whether a district that has offered choice is able to keep that option if it merges with a district that operates a school has been one of the most controversial aspects of the new law.
While much of the focus has been on governance and finance so far, state officials are keen to remind everyone that the law's primary goal is to boost educational achievement. Through consolidation, students that might not have been able to take advanced science or foreign language courses, for example, now could, or so it is hoped.
And the final language on Act 46 may not be in. Lawmakers may try to amend or revise portions of the statute. And it is sure to be a major issue in the coming election for state offices, from the governorship on down, in 2016.
We hope the following articles, opinion pieces and links to documents help Vermonters better understand the issues and opportunities this history-making legislation offers, and how this statewide conversation has evolved.
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