By Rob Roper
Someone leaked a memo from the Scott administration proposing some pretty big changes to the structure of the Vermont public school system, including the adoption of one statewide school district, universal school choice including approved independent schools, a statewide teacher contract, and the elimination of the State Board of Education. The Scott folks say this is not a proposal, just some thoughts designed to spark debate. Okay, let’s debate.
Universal statewide school choice including independent schools is a great concept. The caution here is that, in the language of the memo, the Department of Education would determine which independent schools would be allowed to participate. Now it is a disinterested third party, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, that accredits independent schools for tuitioning purposes based on merit (meeting certain criteria). Allowing a political agency to cut out certain independent schools “just ‘cuz” should not be a part of any reform. “Universal school choice” is only a benefit when the system allows for many different choices.
One statewide school district might or might not be a good idea, depending upon how it is implemented. If the objective is to eliminate a lot of the mid-level bureaucracy at the supervisory union level while — and this is key — devolving decision-making power back to local principals and local, volunteer school boards, this would be great. However, if the idea is to consolidate power and decision making in Montpelier, then, no, this is not a good idea.
A statewide school district run by the Agency of Education and overseen by the Legislature, with limited authority, such as setting and funding a per-pupil tuitioning rate and monitoring statewide student testing, could be a less costly, more efficient improvement. It remains to be seen, however, if the Agency and the Legislature would, indeed, back off and allow individual schools to innovate on their own. If the result is local schools being run from Montpelier, then no thanks.
How would a statewide teachers’ contract fit into this dynamic? If you have universal school choice including independent schools, a statewide teachers’ contract makes little sense. Individual schools would need more flexibility, not less, to compete with one another for students.
As for getting rid of the State Board of Education, go for it! Right now, that body is making a dangerous power-play in the wake of Act 46 and, if it gets its way, will become another unaccountable, growing bureaucracy sucking power and money away from local communities.
So, there’s lots of baby and lots of bathwater in this trial balloon. We’ll keep an eye on it if it gets off the ground.