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Vt. Secretary of Education: Don’t ‘Panic’ About Trump

  • Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe speaks to teachers and staff with the Hartford School District as keynote speaker for the Hartford School District Service Award Presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, at the Dothan Brook School in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Students of the Hartford School District perform for teachers and staff to kick off the Hartford School District Service Award Presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, at the Dothan Brook School in Hartford, Vt. Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe was the keynote speaker for the award presentation. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe speaks to teachers and staff with the Hartford School District as keynote speaker for the Hartford School District Service Award Presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, at the Dothan Brook School in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Teachers and staff with the Hartford School District applaud Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe after she finishes her keynote speech at the Hartford School District Service Award Presentation on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, at the Dothan Brook School in Hartford, Vt. (Valley News - Charles Hatcher) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2017

Wilder — Vermont’s top education official has some advice for local educators who may be rattled by President Donald Trump’s efforts to trim 14 percent from federal education spending: Don’t worry.

“I’m not going to panic,” Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe said in an interview Wednesday morning, minutes after delivering a speech to nearly 300 teachers and staff who were gathered in the Dothan Brook School for the annual Hartford School District Service Awards.

“The very inertia that keeps us from doing what we want is also the inertia that keeps us from doing what we don’t want,” Holcombe said. “It forces compromise.”

Though media headlines have emphasized a push for charter schools by Trump’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, Holcombe said the shift has been more rhetorical than substantive.

“Like me, she actually has less power than they think,” Holcombe said of DeVos. “She can’t make radical changes in how any of those dollars are used without the support of Congress.”

During her address, Holcombe said that the challenge facing stakeholders in the public education system in the coming years will be political.

“Our challenge,” she told the crowd, “is that, at a moment with historic levels of fear and partisanship, how do we have the courage and the faith to reach out to each other and work together to create better opportunities for all Vermonters, so that we can all share the benefits?”

During the interview, Holcombe said she was specifically concerned about the potential for a loss of Medicaid, which supports many of Vermont’s most vulnerable students, and Title II funding, which the federal government gives to the states to support professional development.

Vermont received about $14 million in Title II funding in 2010, and $11 million in 2014, according to federal award data. Holcombe sent superintendents statewide a letter in July in which she said the amount was $10 million last year, and will be $9 million this year.

The money helps teachers and administrators learn how to implement Common Core standards, become a good principal, get the most out of testing software, or implement a Flexible Pathways curriculum that lets kids engage in hands-on learning.

Holcombe, a Norwich resident, said there is the potential for Vermont to feel an immediate impact by budget cuts to the program.

Trump’s proposed federal budget includes a $9.2 billion reduction to the Education Department; in July, the House Appropriations Committee responded with a proposal to reduce that budget by $2.4 billion instead, which would completely wipe out the professional development program.

“We’re very worried about that, because they’re proposing to zero it out,” she said.

Even if that doesn’t happen, she said, the federal trend has been to target those dollars toward larger concentrations of students, which hurts sparsely populated Vermont, particularly its small districts in rural areas.

Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie, who also represents part of the town in the Vermont House, said the school district won’t let the federal government dictate whether it can continue to emphasize professional development.

“I think because its such a high priority in our district we will have to find a way to continue to grow it the way we’re growing it,” Christie said. “Hopefully, it doesn’t have a negative effect on anything else.”

On Tuesday, Vermont submitted a revised state education plan to DeVos to demonstrate its compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act; of 17 states that submitted their plans in April, six have been approved and 11 have received critiques that required a resubmittal.

Holcombe expressed confidence during the interview that the plan will be approved.

At the state level, Holcombe said she was happy with the way that school districts are responding to Act 46, the 2015 education reform law that encourages small school districts to merge to meet new standards of quality and equitability.

More than 130 districts have voted to merge, with more votes expected before a Nov. 30 deadline, Holcombe said.

“Our big problem in Vermont is that we have too few kids under too many roofs, and so we’ve got this very, very low student -teacher ratios,” she said. “I think it’s hard to defend a class of five.”

She said that, in some communities, opponents of consolidation plans are acting on a flawed understanding of education in Vermont.

“Their assumption is the greatest risk they face is Act 46,” she said. “I would argue that the greatest risk they face is declining enrollments.”

When Holcombe was a school principal in Fairlee, she sought to address declining enrollment there by helping to launch the Rivendell Interstate School District in a joint partnership with Vershire, Fairlee, West Fairlee and Orford.

She spoke at Dothan Brook on an invitation from Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi, who said during his introduction that he remembered the days when he and Holcombe taught ninth-graders in neighboring classrooms at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in the 1990s.

“We’ve moved on to bigger roles,” DeBalsi said.

After Holcombe’s remarks, DeBalsi and other administrators presented awards to the “employee of the year” for each school facility.

Julia Lau, a math integrationist at the Hartford Area Career and Technical Center; Hartford High School English teacher Erin Stevens; Hartford Memorial Middle School teacher Deb Dixon; Dothan Brooke School Otter Club supervisor Wendy Plante; maintenance worker Lenny Tetrault; Regional Alternative Program teacher Coralie Mitchell, Ottauquechee School physical education teacher Kaleigh Rhoades; and White River School fourth-grade teacher Mike Duguay each were recognized with the award.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.