A too-timid education reform plan

A year ago the legislature directed Education Commissioner Richard Cate to spend a year in "public engagement", and then submit his recommendations for reforming the governance of Vermont public education. The year has gone by, and the Commissioner has recommended. The question now is what the legislature will do about it. Cate's recommendation, in a nutshell, is this: the legislature should require all existing school districts with fewer than 1500 students to become part of one of 45 to 50 larger K-12 districts, each with one superintendent and a unified tax base. All high school students would have the choice of attending any public or approved independent high school in Vermont or adjacent states, with tuition payments capped to protect local taxpayers. Whether adopting Cate's recommendations would end up effecting any major change is very much an open question. The 50 (of the current 63) surviving superintendents would still have all the administrative headaches they have now. As studies from West Virginia and North Carolina have shown, the projected net cost savings from consolidation would almost certainly not be realized. The modest efficiencies from administration and purchasing would be overwhelmed by increased costs of transportation and the inevitable ballooning of the administrative bureaucracy. Even worse, in a large multi-town unified district the spending lobby (school boards and school employees) will find it much easier to push their interests than grumbling taxpayers who live in a half a dozen towns, and thus cannot effectively organize to vote against higher school budgets. The main reason why Vermont public K-12 education is so beastly expensive is the pupil teacher ratio - 11.3 to one, by far the lowest in the entire country. (This data precedes the mushrooming of universal pre-K, a gift of the 2007 legislature.) Under our present K-12 public education model, the way to curb rising education costs (now over $13,000 per pupil) is not more efficient purchasing of textbooks, fuel oil, and school supplies. It is not slashing teacher salaries and benefits. It is getting rid of teachers teaching small classes. That means big schools dropping some small classes, but mainly it means small schools dropping all their classes and disappearing. This of course ignites an outcry from parents and others who cherish their small community schools. Before Act 60, these folks got hit with high tax bills for their high-cost small schools, but since Act 60 no one is very clear about who is paying for public education. The "close the school and save money" argument has lost a lot of whatever force it may once have had. Commissioner Cate is a native Vermonter who understands the attachment of our communities to their small schools. He also understands the political strength of the vested interests that are making out very well with the present system. That would be superintendents (however burdened with too many districts), school boards jealous of their shrinking prerogatives, and especially the Vermont-NEA teachers union, whose political power depends on having lots of dues paying teachers and aides, and hence low pupil-teacher ratios. Given the influence of the Vermont-NEA over the majority party in this legislature, it's a pretty safe bet that there won't be any motion in Cate's direction, and little support for his very positive proposal for parental choice for all public and independent high schoolers. What Vermont really needs is a completely different K-12 educational model. That model would give all pupils the means to choose what best meets their needs and interests from a diverse range of educational offerings: public schools, independent schools, faith-based schools, charter schools, virtual schools, mentoring, home schooling, and other forms not yet even imagined. Then there would no longer be an overgrown "public education system", any more than there is a "food system" or a "clothing system". Parents and students would have more educational choices and more little schools, but most of those schools, like today's faith-based schools, would be less expensive than today's state-controlled, over-regulated, over-bureaucratized, over-certified, over-unionized public school system. The schools would be run by their own boards and principals. Superintendents would exist only to advise and assist all of these schools, and cope with indispensable special education requirements. Athletics, music and drama programs would become joint community efforts, like technical centers, no longer tied to individual schools. The only real problem that this model doesn't solve is protecting the interests of all those adults faring quite well within the current system - the people who told Cate they didn't want any changes.

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