One of Vermont's newest traditions is that every January and February there is an epidemic of articles and legislative discussions about the education system. These discussions sometimes come from reporters with nothing more exciting to write about, or from advocacy groups of various stripes pushing their pet issues, or by legislators trying to score some kind of "I'm working hard for you" points. There are more of these this year for two reasons. One is that it is an election year, and the legislators need those points. The more important reason is that our education system is a confusing mess when viewed from almost any angle.
As with many Vermont practices, our education system is unique to our state. More so than most states our system has accumulated over time without a real plan at any given moment. Things have happened in piecemeal fashion with no strong sense of direction or guidance from the legislature or the state's education establishment. Decisions were made locally without any consciousness or regard for the "big picture." This non-system worked fairly well until about three or four decades ago when education began to change rapidly. The needs of the national economy and society in general caused most states to adapt and organize new education practices to replace their pre-WW II systems. Not so much in Vermont. We clung to our one room school mentality longer than anyone. The little schools were familiar, cozy, and, cheap to operate, so why change?
Sputnik was orbiting the earth and NASA was scrambling to get a man on the moon when literally hundreds of rural towns reluctantly voted to close their neighborhood micro-schools and combine them into one new, modern operation in an attempt to keep up. The problem was that all this change came from the bottom up. Each little town, secure in the fantasy of "local control" went its own way. Some had the smarts to combine with other towns to create schools of a size large enough to support a varied and challenging curriculum as well as being economically sound. Most did not.
The result of this spontaneous random growth is the situation we have now. Even though the student population is shrinking, the cost of educating the fewer is spiraling out of control. Some of the high costs are legitimate, many are not. Teachers need to be paid the going rate for their profession. Technology is expensive and can't become obsolete; special needs have to be met. On the other hand, our teacher-to-pupil ratio, plus the ever increasing hiring of classroom aides and paraprofessionals has resulted in an over-staffing problem of huge proportions. Duplication of services and physical plant are rampant.
Our state education funding system is complicated to the point of being opaque. Acts 60 and 68 have been contentious from the day they were passed. The tax formulas coming out of your town's CLA, per pupil spending, "weighted pupils," "income sensitivity" prebates for most of us, "impact aid" and small schools grants in some places all camouflage the true costs of operating our schools. It is no wonder voters pass school budgets automatically. It is hard to evaluate the merits of a system that most of us can't explain to a friend.
Complicating the matter further this year is the serious question of how much public money should be spent on tuition to non-public schools. We are proud of our "school choice" offerings which have served us well in the past. At the same time, we now have to confront the contradiction that the school choice option is not an option for everyone. There are at least three bills proposed that deal with school choice either as a financial matter or a governance matter or a question of equal opportunity for all students. None of these bills seems likely to pass, which means that we will limp along another year or two with no interruption of cost increases and rising tax rates. Likewise, there will be no solution to the uneven availability of educational opportunity and the related issues which involve not only how much public money should be spent at non-public schools, but how much money can a non-public school receive without incurring some increase in state participation in their management.
As it stands now current laws do not adequately define and identify the types of schools we now have. It is no longer a matter of "public" and "non-public." We have in our county public schools, private schools and independent schools, all of which have different governance, funding and enrollment policies that serve the needs of various communities and, to varying degrees, receive public tax money.
The legislature should postpone all their debates about the various proposals for reforming the system until they deal with figuring out just what is going on under their radar. They need to modernize our basic school laws so they more accurately describe what now exists and make the law relevant to our current situations.
To be continued, stay tuned.
Weiland Ross is a Banner columnist.