Last week many Vermont schools opened their doors to welcome their students. Enthusiastic teachers and school staff were there to greet them. Buildings and grounds were in immaculate condition from work done over the summer. All of which is the good news -- now the not so good news.
Vermont’s public schools were closed for summer recess when news came to us that only about 80 or so school districts out of approximately 300 could report positive results in the area of achievement in math and reading.
Put another way, 73 percent of Vermont schools failed to meet the basic standards.
This unacceptable statistic was in no way attributable to the fact that an insufficient amount of money is being applied to education -- just the opposite -- we are now close to eclipsing $18,000 per student in statewide education spending.
The amount is double what was being spent per student at the time the Equal Education Opportunity Act (Act 60) was put in place, 16 years ago -- the law that was meant to equalize the education spending throughout Vermont’s school districts -- thereby achieving better academic outcomes.
Nor can it be rationalized that our schools are over-populated and class sizes too large (lowest in the country).
Total statewide school population is approximately 80,000, down from 110,000, when Act 60 went in to effect.
And to round out the bad news, more than 12 percent of the children who enter 9th grade will not be enrolled four years later.
This at a time when even a four year college education is in many fields, the bare minimum, to obtain a foot in the door of an employer.
And if someone is looking to place blame -- you can start with ourselves because we have allowed our state’s primary and secondary education to get to this point. However, placing blame does not get us back to making Vermont’s schools the center of excellence that they can and should be. So where do we start to make change?
We start by recognizing that everyone has a seat on the bus -- and charged with getting us to our destination -- and doing so by having our schools be centers for educational excellence.
The driver of the bus is the governor of Vermont. But he can’t do it by himself. He has to look back at whom else is on his bus.
The second row of seats are occupied by his education commissioner, the state board of education and the members of the Legislature. They have to get out of the business of excuses and begin to enforce the standards that are in place.
Second, they must come up with the courage and fortitude to close schools that are just plain inefficient, small and costly and which don’t provide the breath of education our children will require when they enter collage or the global job arena.
The third row of seats are occupied by local school board members, administrators and staff. They too need to step up and find the courage to make the necessary changes in their schools that will bring excellence and not mediocrity.
Political expediency may be the way of state legislatures and Congress but it has no place when the educational needs of our children are at stake.
In the middle of the bus are the teachers. This valued constituency must adopt the mantra that "no student’s ghost will ever come back and say if only you had done your job" (adopted from the Marine Corps).
If any teacher is not willing to sign on -- they should sign out.
Not far from the back of the bus are the parents/guardians of the students. They too have a role - a critical one at that. They must be held accountable that their charges are well fed, well rested and ready each and ever day to do what is being asked of them - to do otherwise is unacceptable.
Occupying the front seats are the school children. It is all about them and all eyes on the bus should be focused on them. But they too need to be held to a higher standard.
There must be consequences.
If this requires longer school days or weeks, so be it.
We are all on the bus and it is time we realize this and do what is necessary--the time for making excuses should come to an end.
It will take commitment, courage, fortitude and perseverance -- money alone will not do it.
The education success of our children should not have the neglect that we have shown towards our roads and bridges -- just wait until there’s failure -- many of our schools are failing -- let’s fix them once and for all.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.