On April 15, 2015

Schools: everything is relative

H.361 tries to address the school conundrum

By Dave Sharpe

Do we have small schools and small school districts or tiny schools and tiny school districts? Will expanding the size of school districts and getting rid of supervisory unions increase or decrease democracy? Can we embrace a new sense of our local community? Does H.361 get rid of local school boards?

These are all questions related to the Legislature’s initiative to change governance in our PreK-12 school system in Vermont, contained in H.361 as passed by the Vermont House.

There have been many studies and much controversy about whether or not larger school districts save money or improve the educational outcomes for students across America. It is important to note that most, if not all, studies define small school districts as those containing fewer than 1,500 students and small schools as those that have fewer than 300 students. By those standards, Vermont has tiny schools and tiny school districts, and the legislation being proposed would still leave nearly all our schools and school districts in the “small” category.

This begs the question: What is local? Are we required to consider our towns as the only feasible definition of local? Do we confine our shopping, our work environment, our entertainment, or even our friends as within our town borders? When children had to walk to school there were 2,700 school districts in the state, and then, at the turn of the century, we could expand the definition of one’s local school district as within the town’s borders. Now with urbanization, ubiquitous school buses, carpooling, and Internet learning, we can expand our definition of our local school to a much larger area.

Some criticism has come from those concerned about the loss of democracy. The current state of affairs has citizens unable to vote for (or against) the supervisory budgets, and in my district that budget dwarfs the elementary school budgets. Democracy is also lost due to the current trend of closing tiny schools in our rural towns. This is happening now due to economic forces and low student populations. If we can expand our sense of community and have an opportunity to vote on the entire school budget and support small schools, doesn’t that actually expand democracy?

And what about getting rid of local school boards? Certainly, we all like the concept of local control, and the epitome of local control might be local school boards. H.361 makes no mention of getting rid of them; rather, the expectation is that communities will get together to figure out how best to create a PreK-12 school district. This process will create articles of agreement defining the role of the central board, the local boards and the relationship between the towns. H.361 envisions a central board responsible for setting the budget for the education in the larger district as well as the hiring and oversight of the superintendent, who might then have the time to be the educational leader of the district. The role of the local boards is left up to the agreement between the communities.

Some say that the answer is to privatize education, give parents a choice and abandon the idea of public education. I like choice–who doesn’t? Our Vermont Constitution requires that we provide an equitable education for the “convenient instruction of our youth.” How equitable is it if a “voucher” provides for the partial education of our youth, and parents are responsible to pick up the remaining costs? We already make it difficult for students to fully participate in our schools due to the lack of availability of family resources to pay for the “extras.” Do we really think that providing part of the cost of education is an equitable solution to providing high quality education to all our students? I don’t think our Constitution could support the idea that we provide subsidized education only to those who can afford it.

Yes, we have very good public schools; nevertheless, in some of the sparsely populated areas of the state those schools are becoming overly expensive and are closing due to lack of educational opportunities for our students to meet the demands of the 21st Century. We especially fall short of educating the students from low-income families and inspiring all our students to seek some sort of education or training after high school.

I would argue that we need to change the structure of our school system, provide security for small schools that are doing a good job in a cost-effective manner and allow, once again, for the public to vote on the entire cost of that education.

Representative David Sharpe, Addison-4, is the chair of the House Committee on Education.

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