Column: Vermont’s approach to education goes off the rails

By NEIL ODELL

For the Valley News

Published: 02-21-2024 4:36 PM

Dear future Vermont,

I’m sorry. I apologize for where you are now, it was our fault. Things got strange around 2022 to 2024 and went sideways on us. Maybe if more of us had been vocal things could have turned out differently.

As you consider where you are now and how to move forward perhaps a bit of context would be helpful.

Early spring of 2024 was a challenging time in Vermont. In those years, while we still had a public education system, it was being stretched to its limit and was beginning to unravel. There were funding pressures statewide, a dual system of accountability for public vs private and religious schools, a dysfunctional Agency of Education, a State Board of Education friendly to private schools, and a Legislature that struggled with the unintended consequences of a poorly designed education funding bill.

To half-quote Charles Dickens, “it was the worst of times.”

By the 2024 school year, schools throughout Vermont were dealing with unprecedented cost pressures.

Facilities were failing and in dire need of repair. After nearly two decades of no funding assistance, estimates for repairs and renovation topped $6 billion statewide. Schools were also struggling to meet student needs. For years, schools had increasingly become the vehicle by which to provide social services in many of our communities. Schools provided mental health services, pre-K and after-school programs and free meals. These new services, coupled with the daunting task of helping students recover from the global COVID-19 pandemic increased school budgets statewide.

In 2024 we also had an Agency of Education whose job it was to provide oversight and support for the state’s public education system. Unfortunately the governor had failed to appoint anyone to the vacant leadership position for over a year and it suffered from lack of direction and a lack of resources. In one instance, the agency’s failure to follow up on simple paperwork with the US Department of Education jeopardized the receipt of over $100,000 of grant funding.

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We also had a State Board of Education responsible for establishing rules for our education system. Sadly, it was largely beholden to the private schools in Vermont. The Board resisted any attempt to make the standards for public and private schools the same. They insisted on maintaining two separate and distinct sets of rules for public and private schools. It was the same tax dollars but far fewer requirements were attached to those dollars if they flowed to private schools.

In an attempt to improve student equity in the state, the Legislature passed a law in 2022 that included a substantial flaw. This caused the property tax rate to skyrocket statewide. In an attempt to fix the situation, they quickly passed an update to the law in the 11th hour that had school boards scrambling. The confusion and uncertainty this created was extraordinary. I’d like to tell you how that all ended but we haven’t worked through it yet.

Since 1777 we’ve had a clause in our state Constitution referring to the separation of church and state. Often called the compelled support clause, it guaranteed: (1) that people were free to practice whatever religion they chose, free of government intervention and (2) it restricted the flow of taxpayer dollars to support religious institutions. It was, however, hanging on a thread. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2022 allowed taxpayer money to flow to religious schools. While this was the crack in the dam of our compelled support clause, it was the response of state lawmakers and state agencies that broke the levee and let in the floodwaters.

Rather than double down on our public education system, we instead attempted to preserve our private school tuitioning program while claiming we were appalled by discrimination. Our Agency of Education told school districts they could no longer withhold funds from religious schools. Our State Board of Education tacitly approved religious schools to receive public funds that openly discriminated. We were violating our own constitution but nobody cared.

Case in point: in 2024 the Senate considered a bill to move money for afterschool programs out of the Education Fund. Doing so would remove a stricter set of anti-discrimination standards for the use of those dollars. Despite opposition from a vocal group of senators, the body dismissed the concerns and passed the bill. It meant that public taxpayer dollars could easily flow to after school programs that openly discriminated against Vermont’s LGBTQ community.

I’m sorry, Vermont, it didn’t need to end up like this. Based on where things were headed in 2024 I can only assume that taxpayer money is flowing to any “education provider” a family desires. I’m guessing accountability is based on economics — the popular schools (the ones with high attendance and are hard to get into) must be the ones that are providing a stellar education. I’m curious if all your students are doing well? I wonder if there’s still an Agency of Education, or a State Board of Education? You probably don’t need them now that you’ve privatized education. Perhaps some kids have been turned away from certain schools because they are “not a good fit.” Sadly, gone are the days when that was illegal, but I guess our kids are no longer protected by our Constitution.

Neil Odell is a longtime member of the Norwich and Dresden school boards and a former president of the Vermont School Boards Association. He lives in Norwich.