John McClaughry

For months the governor and the secretary of education have been appealing to local school boards for spending restraint with, at best, only modest results. Now the legislature is about to raise the two state education property tax rates to produce enough money for the Education Fund to pay all the voter-approved budgets submitted by local school districts.

This will be politically dangerous, especially in an election year. So long as the Act 60/68 school finance law is in effect, there’s really no alternative. The Education Fund needs $1.5 billion to cover the local budgets. When that Fund runs short, the state’s education property tax rates have to go up.

But instead of bravely facing the fiscal music, legislators and the public school establishment are pointing the finger at our "outdated 19th Century governance structure" as the most important education issue of the year.

They have discovered that it’s not only a cost driver, but it’s "hampering educational opportunities for children in rural areas."

The current "governance reform" proposals in Montpelier envision thirty to sixty Regional Education Districts, each with a superintendent and a board. Most likely the board seats would be allocated among the former school districts according to some measure of population.

This is the "waste management model." Vermont’s sixteen waste management districts are municipalities, like towns and school districts. Their supervisors are mostly appointed by the selectboards of member towns (weighted by town population); some are elected by voters. Their budgets are approved by the voters by ballot on municipal election days. Despite the voting, the waste management districts really don’t "belong" to anybody in the way that a community’s schools traditionally "belong" to local parents and voters.

Waste management districts have a job to do, under state law, and they do it with our trash. It’s a useful service function, like water and sewer. Local schools, however, do what they do with our children, for whom we have traditionally taken a much greater civic interest.

What will Vermont gain by creating mandatory Regional Educational Districts on the "waste management model?" The proponents say that that would make the existing (since 1892) system more rational and manageable. It would -- possibly -- achieve some administrative efficiencies. It would probably expand "educational opportunities," loosely defined, for children now in some smaller rural schools.

On the other hand, consolidation will require a significant increase in transportation costs, and require many more children to undergo long bus rides. Replacing 65 superintendents with 30, each of whom will then have one or more well-paid deputy superintendents, may well not be a cost saver.

While the waste management model would make life a lot easier for the surviving superintendents -- fewer weekly meetings and fewer hassles with school boards -- there is no reason to believe that a state-mandated consolidation would actually save taxpayers a dime, or improve educational outcomes for the students. Significantly, the proponents wisely avoid making such claims.

The RED mega-district would almost certainly stamp out parental choice in the state’s 92 tuition towns. Parents in those towns would get to choose only among the various public schools within the district -- not including independent schools. Some accommodation would presumably have to be made for the four large academies, but the price for their continued existence would likely be their forced submission to the stifling dictates of the Agency of Education.

Furthermore, as Ethan Allen Institute President Rob Roper has trenchantly observed, "without tuition towns to draw students from, Sharon Academy, The Mountain School at Winhall, Long Trail School, Thaddeus Stephens School, etc., will disappear. It’s a huge step backwards."

To top it off, the mega-district would have to negotiate with a powerful, aggressive Vermont-NEA. Citizens and taxpayers of the mega-district would have the near-impossible task of organizing to resist the union’s demands across perhaps a dozen component towns that share no common political identity.

The best answer to the "governance" problem -- currently far out of political reach -- is a reconstruction of the state into forty or so all-purpose units of local government -- shires -- in which citizens can democratically govern their own civic services, local transportation, law enforcement, social services -- and public schools.

Barring that, the rush to consolidation will soon bring us to the unavoidable outcome: One Big School System. All expenditures will be allocated by the Agency of Education among mega-districts. The Agency will extend its regulatory reach much further into independent schools. Superintendents will become paid commissars of the Agency.

There will be a uniform statewide education homestead property tax, one big teachers’ union contract negotiated in Montpelier, and no more pesky local school boards (just fig-leaf "advisory committees.")

Vermont’s proud and popular tradition of parental choice would not be expanded, but consolidated out of existence.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute.