By John McClaughry
For over half a century, the managers of Vermont’s public education system have yearned to consolidate school districts, get rid of “inefficient” small schools and install progressive ideas that the locals were too obtuse to grasp and implement themselves.
Until 2009 those efforts repeatedly failed.
But in that year, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca aggressively renewed the push for consolidation. His “Transformation Policy” report recommended that “by July 2012, Vermont’s PreK-12 public education system is constituted into 12 to 24 education districts.” In 2013 Vilaseca explained that “after seven or eight years, if the districts haven’t joined together, then the State will come in.” He did not mean that the state would “come in” with preaching and incentives. He meant that the state would come in with a Big Hammer.
Vilaseca is gone, but his consolidation push came to fruition in 2015 with Act 46. It has proven to be one of the most wretchedly drafted and confusing laws to emerge from the legislature in living memory.
If Act 46 can be summarized in a nutshell, it is this: Every town school district is required to merge with one or more others into a state-approved unified district, aided by grants and tax incentives; the districts that can’t or won’t comply will be assigned to a mega-district by the secretary of education. The town school districts will be legally exterminated, whether the locals like it or not.
The legislature was warned. Marty Strange, formerly of rural Nebraska and now of Randolph, was for 15 years policy director of the Rural School and Community Trust. He is a nationally known expert on rural school consolidation.
In a powerful analysis following the passage of Act 46, which he strongly opposed, Strange said “schools that did not take the ‘voluntary’ consolidation bait will be subject to penalties … the reformers [consolidators] assure, it is not about wanting to close schools or save money, but about providing the children in these schools the ‘opportunities’ they can only enjoy if their schools are under the control of a larger bureaucracy. They see themselves as saving children, not only from decrepit small schools, but from the backward rubes who run them.”
As the bureaucratic and legal process of Act 46 ground forward, many schools found suitable partners, took the incentives, and formed unified districts as intended. Many others grudgingly did so under the threat of penalties. But some districts just won’t satisfy the educrats. As Strange presciently wrote in 2015, “By 2019, if they can’t be baited or bullied into uniformity, school districts will be simply ordered into mergers as seen fit by the State Board of Education.”
To the shock and dismay of the educrats, a number of town school districts have found a powerful weapon of resistance. In districts like Holland, Chelsea, Rochester and Blue Mountain Union (Wells River, Ryegate, Groton), they’re voting to close their schools and become tuition (choice) towns.
Craftsbury attorney David Kelley, representing the resisting Alliance of Vermont School Board Members, has put the Agency of Education on notice that it will soon face a wide-ranging lawsuit that will claim that Act 46, and the agency’s administration of it, is legally defective and possibly unconstitutional. A similar group, Vermonters for Schools and Community, is urging immediate changes in Act 46 enforcement, in part to head off moves to increase parental choice.
Public school closing and tuitioning is bad news for the educrats, but it gets worse (for them, not for the kids). Some of the resisting towns are planning to reopen their closed public school as an independent school competing for tuition vouchers with other public and independent schools. North Bennington did this in 2012. Now it’s under active consideration in Ludlow, Mt. Holly and Blue Mountain.
The agency’s lawyers have rushed out a memo to thwart those strategies. They claim that a town’s decision to close and tuition pupils for school year 2019 will be illegal because the board will finalize its Statewide Plan before town voters can be warned to act. The town will then no longer be a legal school district, because the plan will have forced it into the merger it opposes.
What’s the way out of this? Reversing Act 46 at this point is a dubious proposition, but the deadlines could be extended for five years, the State Board’s Statewide Plan could be legislatively rescinded, and the board could be stripped of authority to promulgate plans and rules affecting school district organization.
In the longer run, deregulated public school districts should be made to compete with each other and independent schools to attract tuition voucher revenues from customers, instead of extracting their revenues politically by school district budget votes.
Does that sound radical? Yes, it does. But as none other than President Barack Obama has emphatically said (speaking of health care), “My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.”
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.