Column: Vermont School Governance Is Out of Date

Sunday, April 13, 2014
Before the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 2,500 school districts in Vermont. Back then, as it is today, debate was passionate. How should schooling be organized to meet our shared goals? In 1892, the Legislature took courageous action by abolishing those micro-districts and transforming the school system to one with fewer than 300 districts, about the same number as today. More than 100 years later, we now face a similar decision. A bill in the House of Representatives proposes to replace today’s out-of-date delivery system — more than 300 school governing entities — with a configuration that is more appropriate to today’s realities. Significant change from the status quo is always difficult, but in this case, change is essential for the benefit of students and taxpayers.

As former commissioners of education for Vermont, we are writing to convey our strong support for House Bill 883, legislation to establish a system of pre-kindergarten to grade 12 districts for all Vermont communities. H883 would provide more equitable learning opportunities, more continuity for students, and a better cost-management structure.

Vermont has a long history of striving to do what is best for its children educationally and for its communities fiscally. As Vermonters with a strong commitment to public education, we believe there is no more important endeavor than providing high-quality learning opportunities for all of our children. This is a value that we brought to our positions as commissioners of education, and it is a value we continue to hold dear. And yet today, our collective experience tells us we will not be able to do well enough in terms of access to opportunity for students or for long-term sustainability for taxpayers under the current arrangement. In our state, the organization of the education delivery system has remained unchanged for more than a century. In fact, the dominant supervisory union “structure” under which we organize our school districts is a genuine relic from a bygone era.

Today’s governance structure was never designed to support the 21st-century learning and operational needs confronting us going forward. Under the current structure there are 59 superintendents, each with accompanying administrative infrastructure, organized to support 277 school districts, each with its own school board. Forty-five supervisory unions include from two to 14 school districts, each operating differently, with inconsistent missions, uneven distribution of resources and, too frequently, entangled lines of authority and accountability.

Over the past decade in Vermont, the K-12 student population has declined by more than12,000 and projections are for that trend to continue. The costs of education have risen by an average of 4.5 percent annually. The numbers of adults serving a decreasing student population has remained constant. Vermont has fewer students per teacher and administrator than any other state in the country. One result is that our educators are paid less than in neighboring states, even though our per pupil costs are among the nation’s highest. The share of household income devoted to support elementary and secondary education is higher here than anywhere. Leadership turnover is a concern, with few aspiring to principal and superintendent positions. Attracting candidates to run for school board is getting more difficult. The system is often strained by new, but unavoidable obligations that are carried out too many times by small districts with inadequate resources.

In Vermont, the duty to provide equal educational opportunity is a state obligation. In fact, under our laws, the tax resources of the state are available to support public education for every child. The magnitude of this responsibility calls for the most careful and consistent stewardship of our education system and the financial resources that support it. Deploying our total investment of nearly $1.5 billion through roughly 300 very small entities exacerbates our challenges — it does not serve to address them.

H.883 calls for a prekindergarten to grade 12 system of delivery intended to improve opportunities, provide for better cost management and support enhanced student outcomes by using logical associations of school districts within current supervisory unions to form a single district configuration. It leaves the formation of the district and operating provisions to local voters. It calls for a single board of locally elected officials to provide for the stewardship of a locally-based system operating at scale. Under H.883, Vermont would deliver education through small, highly responsive school districts. We would continue to have more school board members per student than any other state. Many of our smallest schools in our smallest districts would find new options for their viability and for their vitality through participation in a system of school districts rather than having to go it alone. The bill would not end school choice as it currently exists in Vermont communities and would actually offer more opportunity for expanded public opportunities for students through local decision-making in redesigned districts.

The time has come to rethink the delivery system of public education in Vermont. We support House Bill 883, and urge you to support it as well.

The writers are former Vermont commissioners of education.