By John McClaughry
On Dec. 18 Gov. Phil Scott will convene an education summit to address “the crisis of affordability and how it impacts the opportunities we are able to provide our children.” In his letter announcing the summit to “education leaders” — apparently referring to the public school establishment — the governor wants long-term cost containment in the public school system.
So did Gov. Dean, who urged a statewide teachers salary contract and threatened to micromanage high spending school districts (but didn’t). So did Gov. Douglas, who in his final state of the state message in 2010 proposed that the State mandate acceptable teacher-to-pupil ratios (the legislature declined).
In his letter, Gov. Scott took the mandate plunge. “We need to establish the same boundaries for per pupil spending across the state … if your student count is declining, districts should do everything possible — including consolidation of grades and schools or other innovations — to lower per pupil expenditures.”
Perhaps recognizing that objections will arise to any proposal for the state to enforce mandates on school spending, the governor hastened to add, hopefully, that “this standard does not have to result in cuts to programming for kids, and in fact can increase academic opportunities.” At the same time he reiterated his call for “a cradle-to-career continuum of learning that understands the capacity to invest more in early care and learning.”
The governor is mindful that taxpayers are facing $80 million in school property tax increases in 2018. He never hints that the savings from consolidation, efficiencies, economies of scale and mandates will put the brakes on ever rising taxpayer burdens. Not at all: he reiterates his support for ever more “investments in early care and learning” to consume the savings hoped for through cost containment, instead of reducing school property tax rates to make them more affordable.
Most disappointing about the governor’s letter is the complete absence of the two words that most alarm the public school establishment: “competition” and “choice.” He seems content with Act 46’s forced school district consolidation that will at best offer parental choice among the surviving public schools in new unified school districts, but offering choice and competition is clearly not on his agenda.
While the governor promises to unveil some “concepts for consideration” at the summit, and while some of those concepts may alter power and money relationships within the current system, not one of them is likely to pose the tiniest existential threat to the public school establishment.
Twenty-one years ago I suggested an alternative to Gov. Dean’s proposals in a similar vein.
Now look at a key feature of the Governor’s property tax solution, putting the state in charge of local education costs which are ‘out of control’. … Montpelier will impose mandates and penalties to control local school spending.
Of course the underlying rules and economics of education will not have changed. Local school districts will still be teaching pupils forced to attend government-run schools under penalty of truancy. Pupils will still be taught by a ‘sage on the stage’ certified by a state bureaucracy, unionized by the Vermont-NEA, and virtually immune to removal for poor performance.
These teachers will be supervised by layers of expensive administrators whose job it is to make sure everyone complies with the state Board’s current version of The Green Mountain Challenge, and above all, doesn’t make any waves.
The ‘solution’ for education costs, and thus property tax relief, will not be found in Montpelier-imposed cost control. It lies in changing the rules of the system to expand competition among providers, local initiative, consumer information and choice, and innovative learning methods ranging from apprenticeship and mentoring to distance learning via Internet. That will result in more satisfied and better educated children, more efficiency in the use of tax dollars, and lower property tax burdens.
Unfortunately a reform built on those ideas is thoroughly unpalatable to the teachers union, most administrators, most elected school boards, and most legislators fearful of the political power of all those groups.
And so we are likely to end up with state government trying to control local educational costs in the same way that it attempts to control health care costs: mandates, caps, limits, ceilings, penalties, and lawsuits to make sure such spending stays within some state-determined budgetary target.
Real reform means customer choice, flexibility, competition, innovation and opportunity – not a Montpelier bureaucracy using an ever-bigger hammer to enforce its budgetary will on an ever more costly government-run school system long overdue for radical change.
As for the forthcoming summit: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.