By Governor Peter Shumlin
In my years of public service, I have never heard a clearer message from Vermonters than the one they sent this past November on school spending and property taxes. This issue goes right to the heart of affordability and economic opportunity in Vermont, because when property taxes rise and wages don’t, Vermonters have less money in their pockets. It’s a problem that has been generations in the making, and digging out of the mess we’re in will take time. But we must start now.
That begins by clearly identifying the problem we are trying to address. Some have argued that the fault in our system is in the way we collect money to pay for schools. I completely disagree. It doesn’t matter what pocket you take the money from, if we don’t take less of it, we won’t solve the problem. We have a school spending problem, plain and simple.
To illustrate this, consider that since 1998, Vermont has seen student enrollment decline by 24,000, 20 percent Statewide. Some communities have lost over 50 percent of their students. Despite this decline, however, we employ more teachers and staff than ever, with a Statewide student-to-staff ratio of 4.7 to 1. We now have the lowest class sizes in the country, with 20 percent of our elementary classrooms seeing between two and nine children.
Worse, our spending problem has led to a very real educational quality problem. We buy those very small classes at the expense of foreign language, tech classes, the arts, sports, and other critical offerings. Some of our schools are so small that scores can’t even be reported in a statistically significant way. We have one of the highest high school graduation rates in the country, but our students pursue post-secondary education at one of the lowest rates in the nation.
It’s clear that we need to take action to help make Vermont a more affordable place to live and to preserve quality education for our kids. Montpelier cannot and should not do this alone. But Montpelier also cannot sit back and wait for local communities to solve the problem. That has not worked.
And that is why I am proposing a number of policies to help move us in the right direction, including:
placing a moratorium on any new legislation that adds costs to districts
phasing out contradictory, expensive incentives including the small schools grant and the phantom student provision, which encourage schools so small they hurt educational quality
targeting construction aid to encourage districts that are actively trying to right-size through a merger
passing legislation prohibiting teacher strikes and board-imposed contracts while requiring both teachers and school boards to agree to a process for resolving labor disputes through third party decisionmaking in the rare but disrupting instances when no negotiated agreement is reached
enhancing the authority of the State Board of Education to redistrict in cases where a school or district is orphaned and needs to be part of a bigger union, and
ensuring that decisions such as principal hiring, health care contracting, and other significant spending take place at the supervisory union level while empowering principals to hire all staff at their schools
These steps will help but we need to go further. I’m suggesting that the State partner with all districts to create tailored performance measures, including targets for student outcomes, school climate, staff-to-student ratios and per pupil spending. Districts will get feedback, and if changes are needed, they will receive guidance and time to make progress.
In the rare circumstance where a district does not make progress despite feedback from this process, the Secretary of Education or the State Board of Education should use their current authority to close those schools or disallow indefensible expenditures. That authority should be used extremely rarely, but it must exist to encourage meaningful change.
I know full well that not everyone will greet these proposals with open arms. But we need to fix this problem, and I hope those who don’t like my ideas will come to the table with ideas of their own. I am fully committed to creating an environment where we listen to all ideas and do not judge them too soon. I hope others will join me. It’s the only way we’ll make progress.