BENNINGTON -- Local school officials received an overview of education bills coming down the pipeline in the Legislature this session during a legislative breakfast Monday.
At the Central Office of Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union, Rep. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said the House Education Committee, of which he is a member, came up with a priority list last week and has its work cut out for it as many bills have coming its way.
Among the many topics the committee will address include governance, the role of the State Board of Education, teacher evaluations, universal pre-kindergarten, extending the school year, and keeping college graduates in-state.
"Governance continues to be a priority for the committee, looking soup to nuts at how education is delivered and (how) we govern education in this state," Campion said.
Two bills being drafted will look to change the role of the State Board of Education -- one eliminating the board and giving total control of the Agency of Education to the governor, and another eliminating the state board's authority to nominate department secretary candidates for the governor to chose from. This is the first year the AOE has had a secretary with a cabinet position instead of a commissioner chosen by the state board, but the legislature is already looking at giving more authority to the governor, Campion said.
The committee is also "very interested in exploring" governance at the supervisory union level, however Campion said at this point it is a broad discussion.
Campion himself has been asked to work closely with the governor's office to bring a proposal forward to help first-generation Vermonters pay student loans. The idea is for the state to pay a year of college to those students who graduate from a public college with a degree in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field and then work in Vermont at least five years.
"They would receive one year's tuition back spread out over those five years," Campion said.
The plan, which was brought up during Gov. Peter Shumlin's State of the State address, still raises many questions and Campion said even he is hesitant how effective it will be.
"Without a doubt people are interested in trying to help Vermonters afford the cost of higher education," Campion said. "I personally am not convinced that requiring students to stay in Vermont for five years upon graduation is a good idea. That's something that needs to be looked at very, very carefully because all it's saying is that you're in Vermont for five years ... you may not have a great job but you're sort of stuck in Vermont."
The House Education Committee is also considering a statewide calendar that would align the start of school and vacations statewide. Schools currently make regional calendars.
Campion said there is also a bill that would extend the school year into the summer, a proposal Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca, as well as President Barack Obama at the national level, both support.
Another hot education topic this session is already taking place in the Senate, which voted last week 26-3 to support the second reading of the "fair share" bill that would require non-union personnel to pay a fee to the union even if they opt not to be a member. The bill, supported by the unions, is intended to make those who benefit from collectively bargained contracts pay the union for its services, however those who oppose it believe a person who wishes not to be a part of the union should not be required to pay the union.
"There's a lot of people that do not want to belong to the union ... it's like they're stealing money," said Francis Kinney, chairman of the Shaftsbury school board. "As far as I'm concerned that's stealing, extortion or we're back to slavery."
The Senate is expected to approve the third and final reading this week, after which the bill will head to the House.
Rep. Anne Mook, who used to sit on the House Education Committee, has proposed two bills assigned to the committee. One, H.05, would require severely disabled students in need of services outside of their local school to -- if possible -- be placed in a Vermont facility. The bill is similar to one Mook introduced a few years ago that would have required all public tuition money to stay within the state. This bill, however, only looks at specialized programming.
"If there is a student who has a special ed need and we have the facility within the state to provide for that student ... and parts of the IEP can be met by keeping that student in state and special ed dollars, public dollars, in state, then that's where it should be," Mook said.
The other bill, H.56, would require independent schools to play by many of the same rules as public schools in order to receive public funds. "If you're spending public dollars, public schools and independent schools should meet the same criteria, and that includes criteria for teaching, building safety and the special ed requirement," Mook said.
Existing state law does not require independent schools to offer special education or require teachers at independent schools to be licensed by the state of Vermont. Mook's bill would require independent schools to offer at least four of the 13 categories of special education. H.56 also requires independent schools to provide free and reduced price meals to students who qualify for discounted meals at public schools.
On Friday, Mook said she will testify before the Education Committee in regard to both of her proposals.
Through the first few weeks of the legislative session there have already been approximately 900 bills proposed or in the process of being drafted, which Mook said is around the same number as were drafted the past two sessions combined. Most, said Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, will be considered but will never make it into law.
"We will pass a very, very small amount," Botzow said. "They have to work their way through, I think, a rigorous and deliberative process that's designed more to not pass bills than to pass bills."
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