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Loss of local control

For years afterward it was called the Vicious Act of '92. Act 20 of 1892 decreed the consolidation of the manifold tiny school districts within most towns into a single town district. At one stroke it reduced Vermont's 2,214 school districts by almost 90 percent.

This was, its critics charged, the death of local control of public education-"local" meaning the neighborhood around a school. Eventually the passions of 1892 faded, and citizens came to associate local control with the town school district, where it remained for a century.

The current assault on local control began in 1997, when a liberal legislature enacted Act 60 at the direction of a Supreme Court informed by bogus history and exulting in what even a liberal legal critic described as "a raw exercise of judicial power."

The most revolutionary and controversial of Act 60's provisions was its requirement that all revenues raised locally be shipped to Montpelier, where they would be mixed with state revenues, shifted about, and returned to districts to meet the Court's mandate of "substantially equal access to tax resources."

That broke the historic link between the amount voted by local taxpayers to operate their schools, and the amount of taxes collected for public education. After Act 68 of 2003, school districts where voters chose to spend more than a dollar amount per equalized pupil set by the legislature (currently $8,544) would suffer a corresponding increase in their legislatively-determined residential education property tax rate (currently .86 percent). This was a shrewd attempt to maintain some linkage between spending and taxation, but most voters have long since given up trying to understand how the system works.

The non-financial provisions of Act 60 were every bit as subversive of local control. For years Commissioners of Education had asked for more control over public schools, but the legislature was largely unwilling to grant their pleas. Schools districts were habituated to teacher certification, union bargaining, financial and educational reporting, and civil rights and special education rules. But Act 60 decreed that the Department could enforce "school quality standards", and "standards regulating conditions, practices and resources". It even gained the power - not yet used - to put a school into receivership.

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