McClaughry: Mandatory school mergers — the final phase

By John McClaughry

In 2015, after literally more than a hundred years of intermittent trying, Vermont’s educational leadership succeeded in giving its bureaucracy the power and duty to force mergers of Vermont’s public schools into larger districts.

After a cautious nudge in the direction of consolidation by Commissioner Richard Cate (2007), Commissioner of Education Armando Vilaseca, later the first secretary, put his energy behind the drive that led to Act 46.

John McClaughry

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

In his final appearance before the House Education Committee in 2013, Vilaseca said: “We don’t need 272 school districts.” A committee member inquired whether Vilaseca thought regionalization ought to be legislatively mandated. Vilaseca replied that school board members and superintendents told him “we’ll never do this ourselves. There has to be some sort of hammer.”

After that session Vilaseca told a reporter that “after seven or eight years, if the districts haven’t joined together, then the state will come in.” Within four years Vilaseca’s hammer had fallen, and the Agency of Education and State Board of Education plowed ahead to complete the mandatory consolidation process.

For decades the advocates’ argument was that the existence of 272 school districts in a state with 80,000 public school students (as of 2017) produced fragmentation, duplication, inefficiency, inequalities, economic cost and educational shortcomings. Their remedy — always the first resort of people with the centralizing mentality — was to convert public school governance into a far more orderly and manageable state-led system that would produce “savings,” administrative conveniences and better outcomes.

Act 46 declared that its purpose was “to encourage and support local decisions and actions.” Most Vermonters probably think of “local” as their town or city. In the public education world, “local” means anything beneath the state level, operating under state-determined rules and requirements.

A more candid statement would have been “to support local decisions among the limited options defined and offered by the Agency of Education and State Board of Education.” The educrats have always bemoaned, at least privately, the intrusion of local school boards, parents and taxpayers into what ought to be an enterprise conceived and guided by “experts.”

A 2018 Agency of Education report asserted that “many of Act 46’s goals are becoming reality: enhanced educational opportunities for students, increased stability for school staff, intra-district school choice, collaboration in school governance, and more efficient utilization of tax-payer resources.” It reported that 206 districts in 185 towns had merged into 50.

Later that year the State Board issued its final report on Act 46 implementation. Its state plan includes a mind-boggling bestiary of various union districts, indicating which mergers were “possible,” “practicable,” “possible not practicable,” and “practicable not possible.” The knotty issues included consolidating finances, unifying bonded debt, closing underpopulated buildings, transporting students to new locations, shuffling districts among supervisory unions and placating voters.

What it doesn’t mention is achievement of a long-time goal of the teachers union and school boards association: shrinking opportunity for parents to make choices of schools for their children’s education. Yes, parents in unified districts gain choice among that district’s public schools — but parents in tuition towns swept into unified districts lose the choice of other public schools and, most importantly, of independent schools.

At least two tuition towns (Chelsea and Ludlow) saved parental choice by closing schools before being forced into a merger. Ten Northeast Kingdom tuition towns formed the NEK Choice district and thus preserved their K-12 choice. Other towns, like Westfield and Elmore, were swallowed up and lost choice. Once a town enters a unified union school district, it will prove to be almost impossible to ever get out.

Thirty-three small districts that were ordered to merge are currently fighting for their independence in the Vermont Supreme Court. Their lawyers argue that the agency and board flouted the law the Legislature passed, made no findings that their mergers met any definition of “necessary,” and ran roughshod over established voting rights, and that the Legislature forcing towns to merge may even be unconstitutional. The best outcome the plaintiffs can hope to get would be a court-ordered administrative do-over.

Probably the best — albeit most revolutionary — reform now would be for the Legislature to establish universal parental choice with state-issued portable tuition scholarships, and let the merged districts and independent schools compete to attract pupils and revenue by offering personalized learning opportunities, “flexible pathways,” quality results and services that meet the needs of their customers.

No presently conceivable Vermont legislature will do this. That idea would terrify the constellation of “stakeholders” determined to defend their power, privileges and benefits against any uprising of parents demanding better education for their children.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

Images courtesy of Michael Bielawski/TNR and John McClaughry

8 thoughts on “McClaughry: Mandatory school mergers — the final phase

  1. Universal parental choice strikes me as exactly right to “disrupt” the educational status quo. There are lots of problems with our public schools, not the least of which is a flawed pedagogy, that is to say, the progressive education establishment’s belief that process/skills trumps knowledge. Good education requires both. Parental choice would make it clear what outcomes parents and community value and open up a flood of innovation.

  2. If Montpelier wanted to cut costs and provide equity they would mandate useful things, like the state writing policies and curriculum of studies. They would set graduation requirements, and remove the rules that require districts to have as many or more support people as they have teachers. They would also exempt people over 65 from school taxes, placing the load on the people with kids in school, thus forcing them to care more about their kids education — which is the number one factor in quality education.

    • The State has already mandated ‘useful things’ – useful, at least, to the State’s sensibilities. The State has ‘writing policies’ and a ‘curriculum of studies’. The State already sets ‘graduation requirements’. And the State is, ostensibly, decreasing support staff through consolidation. The problem is that the State isn’t doing very well at executing its plan, not that they don’t have one.

      And most parents already ‘care’ about their children’s education. The problem is that they have no input, no one is listening to them. On one hand the education system’s knee-jerk excuse for dysfunction is that parents don’t care or are unqualified to make decisions on behalf of their children. On the other hand, when parents try to take part, they’re summarily dismissed.

      There is one way, and one way only, to make parents more accountable – give them ‘Parental School Choice’. Not only will the parents pay more attention, MOST IMPORTANLY, so too will the school teachers and administrators the parents choose. Because if the school teachers and administrators don’t listen to the parents, the parents will choose someone else to educate their kids.

  3. John, As long as parents wait for the state to give school choice, they will likely never get it. Think outside of Montpelier and parents can do anything … they just have to pay for it. But the reality is if you want say, you have to pay. Anything else is, at best, wishful thinking.

    I know I am thinking out of the box, but I have been in that box and nothing good ever seems to come out of it. As a long term means to restructure and lower property taxes, grow the idea of parents paying for their own children’s education. As more and more parents chose an education option that better fits their child than the public monopoly option, vote for proportionally lower school budgets. If education of children is the main goal, everyone should be on board. Of course I know education is not the main objective for many in “education.” For many the job is more important and when you have bills to pay, that is not an irrational position. But when it comes to parents paying for education (taxes or direct), education is the focus.

    • The following missive is neck deep in the weeds. But it beats mere whining.

      There’s another method to achieve School Choice that is already authorized under Vermont Statutes. While it covers only grades 7 thru 12 at this time, it provides significant authority to local school boards and the parents in every district.

      16 V.S.A. § 822 School district to maintain public high schools or pay tuition
      https://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/section/16/021/00822

      In general the statute dictates that:
      (c)(1) A school district may both maintain a high school and furnish high school education by paying tuition:
      (A) to a public school as in the judgment of the school board may best serve the interests of the students; or
      (B) to an approved independent school or an independent school meeting education quality standards if the school board judges that a student has unique educational needs that cannot be served within the district or at a nearby public school.
      (2) The judgment of the board shall be final in regard to the institution the students may attend at public cost.

      Yes, the authority rests with the local school board. And yes, with consolidation it may be more difficult to elect sympathetic board members. But it’s a hell of a lot easier to elect local board members than to affect a majority in the State Legislature or the VT Agency of Ed. and the agency’s enforcement arm, the State Board of Education. And local school districts can be held accountable if they refuse to honor parental requests to the detriment of the student.

      The recent Act 46 Superior Court rulings specifically citing that “…distribution of a resource as
      precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child’s residence” and therefore violated the Common Benefits Clause” gives individual parents the statutory authority to demand consideration by their school districts.

      The rulings emphasize the reason current lawsuits are ineffective is because “…school districts have no legally cognizable liberty or property interest in their continued existence which would give rise to due process protections”.

      But there is authority allowed to individual actions:
      “Due process protections do not apply unless the government has deprived an individual of a
      protected property right.” Education is a ‘protected property right’.

      Last month, in fact, The Milton School District was found negligent in a bullying case because it could not protect a freshman student. But protection against bullying is but one of the requirements the courts have assigned to school districts. The Act 46 rulings dictate that governance meet the following goals:
      (1) provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities statewide;
      (2) lead students to achieve or exceed the State’s Education Quality Standards, adopted as rules by the State Board of Education at the direction of the General Assembly;
      (3) maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing the district level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff;
      (4) promote transparency and accountability; and
      (5) are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value.

      If the district doesn’t meet these goals, it doesn’t meet the “unique educational needs” of the student as set forth in 16 V.S.A. § 822 (B). Therefore, parents have the statutory authority to choose a public school that may best serve the interests of the students; or an approved independent school or an independent school meeting education quality standards… at public cost.

      If the district refuses, they can be sued for negligence.

  4. I have to wonder if the Vermont Courts are capable of realizing that Act 46/49 violated the “Equal Opportunity” outcome promoted in Brigham and would rule that Universal Choice was the only remaining option ?

    H. Brooke Paige
    Washington Vermont

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