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Column: School Governance in Vermont Works Well

When a press release named me as the only Vermont State Board of Education member who voted against the House consolidation plan (H883), the perfectly predictable result was a stampede of reporters asking me, “Why?” Here’s my answer:

The bill is ghost dancing.

In 1890, the Sioux were overrun by white men invading their territory, bringing their deadly diseases. Indeed, their very existence was in the balance. A leader arose, preaching that benevolent ghosts, summoned through dance, would bring peace and harmony. While the movement was pacific in nature, the U.S. cavalry didn’t see it that way. Some Sioux sewed magic “ghost shirts” which, they believed, would turn away bullets.

Perceiving Vermont education to have some kind of not very well defined but urgent problem, a legislator arose and exclaimed, “Something has got to be done!” Another cried, “The system is old and must be replaced!” (Never mind that the state constitution is older.)

So, some legislators performed their dance and preached their revelation; consolidate central-office administration and dramatically reduce publicly elected school boards. What is missing from this vision is a cogent link of this solution to a problem.

To be sure, the dancers sing that consolidation will improve educational opportunities, eliminate inequalities, save money, help small schools, eliminate bureaucracy, promote more efficient use of resources, allow the sharing of teachers, modernize the delivery system, and teach 21st-century skills! This would be a breathtaking set of virtues — except that how eliminating school boards and building larger districts would do all this is, well, not addressed.

Let’s look more closely at the efficiency claims: Are the legislative ghost dancers unaware that these claimed new efficiencies are already provided for in law? Agreements across schools and supervisory unions are specifically authorized and firmly rooted in decades of use in special education and technical education. Sharing teachers between schools is as old as the 19th century. Union high school arrangements have provided higher-level courses and specialized education programs since the 1960s. Certainly, obstacles to cooperation exist in law — such as the needless duplication of state and federal paperwork — but these are tasks for finely tuned legislation.

Closing schools and saving money: The nation has more than 100 years’ experience in consolidations, and the research is clear. Unless you close schools and lay off staff, you don’t save money. As part of the ghost ritual, the very emotional issue of closing schools is only addressed in the half-light. Some legislators claim consolidation will “strengthen small schools” and the bill uses the vague euphemism “bending the cost curve.” The plain fact is that consolidating districts leads to closing schools. We should be honest and up-front about this.

As for financial efficiency, consolidating teacher salary contracts will increase costs as salaries are “leveled up.” To be sure, personnel, payroll, purchasing, transportation and other systems can and should be centralized, but these savings can be reaped under current law.

Power and democracy: By eliminating locally elected school boards, power and authority is taken from the local community and vested in a regional superintendent with a smaller board. Thus, the public and parents have less access to matters that affect them. As the Supreme Court has affirmed the principle of “one person, one vote,” expect a court case resulting in the larger towns having more weight than the smaller towns. And, as has been seen in other states, that is how small outlying schools are voted out of existence.

Before standardized testing eclipsed other reforms, the dominant theme was “site-based management.” The rest of the nation saw the power of Vermont’s governance system and sought to decentralize.

Vermont education certainly has many legitimate issues, including tax rates, efficiency, modernity, declining enrollments (now bottoming out), a better accountability system and the achievement gap. These real problems should rightly command our attention.

Spending the next several years in a painful redrawing of the map simply absorbs energy and good will. If merging Bethel, Randolph and Royalton is thorny, imagine merging Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski. It would divert political capital from the bigger and more important issues. It would fight the wrong battle.

Schools, tightly connected to their communities, reduce the achievement gap between rich and poor (the gap is 14th smallest among states and our overall achievement is among the highest) and are a harmonizing force in an increasingly fragmented society. It just may be that this crazy organizational duck called a supervisory union is not the obstacle to our progress; it may be a critical reason for our success.

Our dancers have worked hard and fervently believe in the righteousness of their vision. But that ghost distracts us from our true problems. And in a historical after-note, the Sioux found out on Dec. 28, 1890, at a place called Wounded Knee, that ghost shirts don’t stop bullets.

William J. Mathis is a former Vermont school superintendent and the managing director of the National Education Policy Center, which has researched school consolidations nationally. The views expressed are his own.