MONTPELIER >> The State Board of Education has stepped in to do what the education secretary won't or can't — ask for more staff — and the situation is resurrecting concerns about politics interfering with what's best for Vermont's schoolchildren.
In recent weeks, members of the state board went to the Legislature to ask for money for staff at the Agency of Education as well as for their own work. Gov. Peter Shumlin's budget proposal didn't include more employees even though they are being asked to carry out the biggest changes to the education landscape in Vermont in more than a century.
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe defended her boss's decision in these tight fiscal times. "I will trust my administration to make decisions about where to allocate staff," she told the House Education Committee. "I don't think we are the only agency suffering. I have to trust that the administration is looking at the broad constellation of needs."
The "message from the secretary" that introduces the agency's fiscal 2017 budget recommendations states in bold type: "The Agency of Education is not asking for additional positions in this budget."
Instead it's the state board asking the House Education Committee to take its case for more money to the Appropriations Committee. Board members are appointed by the governor to terms of defined length, unlike the secretary, who serves at the governor's pleasure.
In 2012 the Legislature made the chief state school officer a Cabinet position; until then the education chief had answered to the board.
"We don't owe anybody politically," state board member William Mathis told the House education panel. "We are an independent voice, and what we are saying here comes from that independent voice and what we think is what is best for the kids."
Since 2008, the Agency of Education has shed 43 positions. In the last few years, the Legislature has passed sweeping changes to school district governance in Act 46, universal pre-kindergarten in Act 166, and a program called Flexible Pathways in Act 77, all of which take energy from the agency to put into action. The agency also has to respond to the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
"It isn't only the state asking more of the agency. The federal government is now changing the rules which the state has to rewrite. It puts a lot of pressure on the agency," said state board member Krista Huling.
The federal government provides funding for nearly 50 percent of the 171 positions at the Education Agency. The state general fund pays for 30 percent of the agency employees. The rest comes from miscellaneous fees and other sources.
"If we want Vermont priorities to be first, we have to fund more than 30 percent of the agency. It is more of a federal agency at this point," Huling told lawmakers.
When the state looks to save money, those cuts come from staffing for state programs.
"The positions that have been lost have been the leading edge positions," said Mathis, "the things that would make education better. We get reduced to people keeping numbers and counting beans for the feds."
Vermont fits into a national pattern, according to Patrick Murphy, a professor in the Department of Politics at the University of San Francisco. Since the Great Recession, states have cut costs and haven't restored education funding, he said. In general, the federal government funds between 40 and 60 percent of education personnel in the states, according to Murphy.
Huling drew lawmakers' attention to the Flexible Pathways program that includes an early college option for high school seniors; dual enrollment in college and high school for juniors and seniors; and personalized learning plans, or PLP, for each student in grades seven through 12.
"PLP has to be created by the agency. Who is going to do that work?" she asked.
Then she brought up the change in graduation requirements from focusing on seat time to the demonstration of graduation proficiencies. Vermont's new education quality standards state that each school's graduation requirements need to be "rooted in demonstrations of student proficiency." It begins with the class of 2020 — today's seventh-graders. Content specialists for each subject area determine what students should know and do to prove they have mastered the subject.
"We don't even have that done yet. It has to be done by the agency. There is no content specialist for social studies," according to Huling, who teaches the subject. "I'm seeing it as a teacher trickling down to me that the agency doesn't have enough staff."
The spending request did not fall on deaf ears. Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who is the chair of the House panel, said he understood the frustration as well as the concerns about carrying out the laws. "I understand the implementation of preschool has been very problematic and a big challenge for both the agency and the state board, particularly with regard to certifying and the background checks for the additional preschool teachers that have been folded into the system," he said.
"I'm just disappointed the governor didn't make some response to the pressure in his budget that we can support," Sharpe said, adding that now his policy committee would have to "go out on a limb" to support additional money for the state board and additional positions for the agency. "It is extra difficult to bring that to the finish line. It is a huge uphill battle for us."
Rep. Bernie Juskiewicz, R-Cambridge, was very frustrated during the hearing, saying that for three years he has been trying to throw the agency a lifeline. "I've asked people in AOE, 'Do you have a head count problem? If you don't have enough staff, tell us what you need,'" he said.
That is when Huling implied Holcombe's hands are tied. "The agency's is also tied because they answer to the governor and so they can't go above when asking a staff member that is not the chain of command in the agency."
"Sometimes you have to break the chain of command," said Juskiewicz. In a later interview, he said it was a bad idea to politicize the secretary's post.
It used to be that the State Board of Education, to which the education chief once reported, was seen as a buffer against the political agendas of elected officials.
But there was bipartisan support to bring the secretary of education under the governor's leadership in an effort to make the position more accountable.
At the time, Shumlin acknowledged critics of the idea, saying, "There was tremendous skepticism, tremendous fear that we were somehow politicizing a process that shouldn't be politicized. I say what we're doing today is ensuring that we have accountability from the governor and the ability for the elected governor to care about educational quality by having a secretary, a full member of the Cabinet, to ensure that that vision is being carried out."
Now some say those fears are being borne out. State Board of Education member Mark Perrin told the House education panel, "The politics of the secretary answering to the governor is coming into play, and there needs to be a way to get through that fog to get to that reality to find out what the agency really needs. It is black and white in terms of what the state board needs — that is kind of easy — but the other pieces are just as important and they can't speak for themselves.
Perrin added that time is of the essence, saying that something needs to be done this year or next or the state risks losing momentum on a lot of good education initiatives. "We made an investment in our children's future, and a lot of pieces are in place, and we don't have the dollars to support the manpower we need to go forward," Perrin said.