In an earlier column this year I pointed out that the question of reforming the way our state finances our education system has deteriorated into an annual ritual which repeats itself endlessly without ever actually producing any action. Since I am an eternal optimist I ended that column with the hope that maybe next year would be different and the cycle of inaction would be broken when the legislature re-convenes for the second year of their terms. Events have accumulated that have made the chances for meaningful reforms even more remote than before.
The first big move by the enemies of reform was to change the state’s education governing system by eliminating the independent Department of Education and replacing the Commissioner of Education with a Secretary of Education. This is not merely a change in titles. The Commissioner of Education was appointed by the State Board of Education and functioned as their chief executive officer to carry out the education policies of the board. The first responsibility of the Board and Commissioner was to see that a sound education system existed in Vermont. The Board and Commissioner were not primarily a political body. The new Secretary of Education is no longer appointed by the Board of Education. The Secretary is a cabinet member appointed by the governor and reports to him (or her) directly. As with the other cabinet members the secretary serves at the governor’s discretion. The office is no longer an education office; it is now a political office. The state board of education no longer has much of a voice. They can speak, but no one has to listen. Their chief executive officer is now a political functionary.
The two most commonly discussed reforms of late have been the state’s education funding system and the need to consolidate many of the state’s 40 or 50 tiny schools into larger districts that are less wasteful of economic resources, and, more importantly, more educationally valid. The current funding system is complicated to administer and many, if not most, people don’t understand it fully. Also, because it features a generous rebate system designed to aid persons whose incomes fall below a certain level the system disguises the true cost of operating local school systems. This disguising of the true cost encourages voters to a "take the money and run" mentality by saying, in effect, ‘we gave you a nice pile of bucks, now go vote for the budget.’
As for the 40 or more microdistricts, it would take a full-page article to show how they waste money by duplicating services, require the hiring of redundant staff and deprive students of the educational opportunity and benefits that come from the resources of a larger school.
The politicization of the Education Department and the desire to prevent reform seem to have converged with the appointment of our new Secretary of Education. Before she has even been sworn in, she has pronounced that the idea of change in the finance system and the consolidation matter are dead on arrival. As Gov. Shumlin beamed approval, she described the funding system as being "the most progressive and probably the most exciting finance formula in the nation." Her remarks regarding school consolidation centered on the theme that it "must not be imposed by Montpelier."
The fall season is upon us. The leaf peepers are drifting in and the cider donut people are ready to pounce on them. School has started with the annual hopefulness that each new year brings. The September head lines pointing out that for the second year in a row 73 percent of our schools failed the national tests are a distant memory. A less visible sign of the season is that local school boards are now putting together the budgets we will ratify in March. The fiction of "local control" is, as always, playing out quietly and inexorably. Superintendents will politely ask local boards for their input, and then present them with the budget that the school union’s business administrator has prepared for them.
Attendance by the public will be sparse to nonexistent and will result in no discussion of budget items. Whatever the bureaucracy at home and in Montpelier chooses to lay out will prevail. After all, it’s their game. All the voters can be sure of is that the boards are the payees and we are the payers. Reform is dead on arrival.
Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.