BRATTLEBORO -- As a member of the House Education Committee, state Rep. Valerie Stuart found herself in the middle of one of the biggest debates of the 2014 session: Whether Vermont’s small schools should consolidate.
A bill that would have mandated such consolidation eventually failed. But Stuart, D-Brattleboro, wants another term in part because she still believes the state’s educational-governance system needs an overhaul.
"I think we’re on the cusp of some big change," Stuart said. "What form it will take and exactly when it will pass is up in the air. I think people just needed more time to vet it and kick it around."
Stuart’s district covers part of Brattleboro. She is serving her second, two-year term and is seeking a third; Stuart has no opposition on the ballot in the Aug. 26 primary.
She has served on the Education Committee for both of her terms in Montpelier and hopes to continue that work.
"I’ve loved being on the Education Committee. It’s so interesting," Stuart said. "I think it’s one of the most important things our society does. And I think, for our state, at this particular point in time, it’s really important."
She lists several big accomplishments in the education arena over the past four years, including:
* Making the state education secretary a cabinet-level position.
"This has helped education rise to the top of the state’s priority list and strengthened education by (ensuring it is) backed by the power of the purse and the bully pulpit," Stuart said.
* Creating a "flexible pathways" initiative that includes dual-enrollment and early college offerings for high school students. Also included are "personal learning plans" for students.
Stuart said the idea is to "get kids into college who are ready to go to college and don’t drop out of college."
She added that "it will help get more first-generation kids into college, and that’s really important, especially if you want to break the cycle of poverty."
* Approving a universal, publicly funded pre-kindergarten program, an accomplishment from the 2014 session.
"All 3- and 4-year-olds will have access to at least 10 hours (weekly) of pre-K if their parents want to enroll them. It’s up to the parents," Stuart said.
While there will be a cost, Stuart believes pre-kindergarten is a good investment for Vermont.
"Research shows that children who are not ready to learn when they begin kindergarten cost more to educate," Stuart said. "Giving young children a jump start on reading skills can prevent them from needing costly special education in elementary school. Children who do not benefit from such early learning opportunities also are more likely to need remediation."
The 2014 session included heated debate on school consolidation and the state’s small-schools grants. Stuart took a somewhat-unpopular position on both topics: She favored the consolidation plan and also favored phasing out the grants.
The reason, she says, is relatively simple: Stuart does not believe all Vermont students get the same chance to excel in the classroom.
"The bill proposed to create a pre-K through (grade) 12 system with a streamlined education-governance structure. At the very heart of the legislation is the quest to ensure every child in Vermont has equal access to equal education opportunities," Stuart said.
"Today, despite our state’s high marks in education -- we enjoy one of the nation’s highest high school graduation rates and our students perform exceedingly well on many key tests -- as a state, we are failing to deliver equal learning opportunities to every Vermonter, particularly children in rural areas and those living in poverty," she added.
While the consolidation effort was defeated and small-schools grants were preserved, Stuart believes a "robust debate" has begun.
"I think some kind of change has to happen, because some of those schools are just too costly," she said. "Enrollments have gone down, and costs have continued to go up."
Education issues aside, Stuart also wants to return to Montpelier to focus on economic issues. She was pleased that the Legislature this year approved a bill that includes creation of a $4.5 million Vermont Enterprise Fund and appropriation of $500,000 in state money "to bolster the Vermont Economic Development Authority’s loan-loss reserves for entrepreneurial lending," Stuart said.
The bill also created the Vermont Strong Scholars program, which offers partial loan forgiveness to students who earn degrees in targeted fields and then stay in Vermont to work.
Additionally, Stuart has been named to a national Task Force on Workforce Development and Education by the Council of State Governments.
"The task force I will serve on will focus on the absence of qualified workers to meet the demands of American businesses and industry," Stuart said. "I am thrilled about being a member of the task force because effectively preparing Vermonters for college and careers and developing our workforce to meet businesses’ needs is so important to our region and our state now. It is particularly important to our area as we transition to a post (Vermont Yankee)/Entergy economy."