Editorial: Vermont’s Small Schools

Published: 5/27/2016 10:01:21 PM
Modified: 5/27/2016 10:02:24 PM

Polls consistently show that American parents generally favor their children’s neighborhood school and think it’s performing pretty well — whatever their opinion of public education nationally. Such attitudes help to explain why in many communities school consolidation and closings create discontent and political divisions.

That’s the case in Vermont, where there’s anxiety about how Act 46, which gives considerable power to the state, will play out. The school reform law enacted last year encourages — or mandates, depending on your viewpoint — schools and districts to combine in order to achieve more efficiency at less cost. The law is yet another attempt by the Legislature to check rising school budgets in a state where enrollments are falling.

Whether Act 46 will achieve its goals remains to be seen, of course, but it’s already clear that some towns are unhappy with the idea of reconfiguration, knowing full well that Vermont’s Agency of Education is likely to intervene if they don’t come up with a suitable plan. Norwich, Thetford, Sharon and Strafford explored consolidation until Norwich dropped out of talks earlier this year, citing potential complications involving the town’s participation in the Dresden interstate school district.

Farther south, as Valley News staff writer Matt Hongoltz-Hetling reported this week, four districts in the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union are struggling to figure out how best to comply with Act 46. After studying various merger options, officials in Weathersfield have come to the conclusion that they like the arrangement they have, with a neighborhood K-8 school and school choice for the town’s high school students. Stipulations in Act 46 would take away school choice if Weathersfield combined with Windsor, requiring Weathersfield students to attend Windsor High School. Officials at the supervisory union would prefer to leave the districts alone and are preparing to ask the Agency of Education for a waiver to Act 46.

We expect to hear this theme and variation from other towns throughout the state. It’s interesting to note in this context a new report that makes recommendations for reducing inequality in Vermont’s schools. One is to preserve small village schools. Noting the state’s push toward district consolidation, Voices for Vermont Children, an advocacy group, suggests that larger schools don’t necessarily offer the advantages many suppose.

“Whether it is long bus rides for some students, limited enrollment capacity or ‘tracking’ students into different curriculum offerings, more options do not necessarily correlate to more equitable schools. Larger schools do not necessarily benefit all students equally, and in fact report larger achievement gaps than their smaller counterparts,” states the report, Education Equity for All Vermont’s Students.

While average standardized test scores, such as the statewide achievement tests administered to comply with federal law, vary little by school size, according to the report, gaps in proficiency between rich and poor students are narrower in Vermont’s smaller elementary and middle schools than in larger ones, defined as more than 300 students. Dropout rates are also substantially lower at smaller high schools.

Of course, small is a relative term in Vermont, because by national standards almost every school in the state is small. And given demographic trends, some Vermont schools appear to be too small to be viable. Further, there’s little arguing that Vermont’s smallest districts spend proportionally more than larger districts while offering fewer comprehensive programs.

Even so, village schools, most of them serving elementary students, have long been the tradition throughout the state, and they anchor communities in important ways that extend beyond the classroom. Thus, while some school closings and consolidation under Act 46 may be practical, even necessary, from a budgetary perspective, the disruption to districts and the potential loss of schools are sure to tug at the social fabric. The contemplated changes, though difficult to quantify, seem to go against what makes Vermont Vermont.

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