Broadbrush answers to the state's biggest question

SOUTH BURLINGTON Addressing the high cost of education in Vermont without sacrificing quality outcomes for the states students is a huge challenge facing everyone from those who make the policies and set the standards to those who pay the taxes. It is certainly a bigger question than can be solved in a 45-minute panel discussion. On Monday, Feb. 12, a highly qualified panel representing educators, legislators and concerned citizens addressed the question at the Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce and Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation and attended by a near-capacity crowd of legislators and business leaders. The panelists were Education Commissioner Richard Cate, Senator Susan Bartlett of Lamoille County, chair of the Senate appropriations committee, Rep. Gregory Clark of Vergennes, vice-chair of the House Education Committee, and Mary Powell, a member of the Education Costs and Quality Task Force established by the Chamber and GBIC to study the matter. Their answers to very large questions posed by moderator Chris Smith painted solutions in very broad strokes, setting the stage for on-going discussions which they agreed will have to happen all over the state in the legislature where decisions will have to be made, but also in every town where local needs will have to be taken into consideration. Moderator Smith, who is currently in the process of changing his career direction, having been a financial analyst and advisor and now in the teacher training program at Essex High School transitioning to become a high school social studies teacher, set the stage for the discussion by listing findings of the Chamber/GBIC study of education outcomes and financial sustainability: total expenditures over the past ten years have been riding at rates more than double general inflation rates; student enrollments have declined by nearly 10,000 since 1997 and will continue to decline until about 2013; staffing has increased by more than 22%; expenditures for public K-12 education will represent more than half of all Vermont state appropriations in fiscal year 2007; Vermont has the lowest student-teacher radio in the nation. Senator Bartlett said that fixing the educational delivery system in the state will involved trampling on some sacred ideas. She said that she had recently realized that no one has ultimate responsibility for monitoring the $1 billion annual spending on education. The commissioner, principals, school boards, are all focused on providing quality education, and her suggestion is that there needs to be a executive committee with representatives of local boards whose role it is to focus on controlling spending. There was general consensus on the need for reducing the number of superintendencies in the state, some of them supervising just one school. However the age-old tension between efficiency, economy and local control will need to be addressed. The Commissioners current state-wide study of governance is a step toward finding a more efficient way to provide supervision and direction for schools. His suggestion is that there should be 50 to 60 school districts, down from the current 284 for the 311 school buildings. However he cautioned against the assumption that there should be wholesale school closings. There are places where we need smaller schools, he said. It is a question of demographics and geography. Mary Powell said changes of the scale that will be needed will require tremendous courage and commitment and would need to be a process that involved engaging the public and engaging the school communities. It cant be a top down strategy, she said. One suggestion from Commissioner Cate was to eliminate the Carnegie system that has existed for generations, by which a student who sits in a classroom for the requisite number of days and gets at least a D in a subject moves on to the next grade. He suggested that technology and sophisticated systems for monitoring individual progress should be used to give each student a personal progress track. He also urged that distance learning technology give Vermont students the opportunity to study Mandarin Chinese with a teacher in China and science from the brightest minds in the country. Rep. Clark said a priority must be to invest in e-schools, ensuring that every student has access to the greatest minds. He also suggested that schools should be open later in the day so that every student in a K-8 school would be in the school until 5 oclock, providing learning opportunities and also meeting the needs of parents. Commissioner Cate ended the discussion by bringing up three more challenges that are underlying the education problems. We need to eliminate poverty, make sure every student has two involved and supportive parents and eliminate illegal drugs, he said. Unfortunately those are issues over which the schools have no control.

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