Families in over 90 Vermont towns enjoy full school choice today. They can send their children to places like St. Johnsbury Academy or Burr & Burton…. South Burlington High School or Stowe…. Any public or approved, non-religious independent school, in state or out, that best fits the needs of their child.

And these families are enjoying such great educational opportunities – more choices, better outcomes, even higher home values – for LESS COST TO THE VERMONT TAXPAYER on average than students in non choice districts.

Isn’t it time to give all Vermont kids the same opportunity to attend the school that’s right for them? Especially if we can give Vermont property taxpayers a break at the same time?

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LEARN MORE!

EAI REPORT: School Choice in Vermont: A 150-Year-Old History That Leads to a Brighter Future

EAI REPORT: Better Value, Fewer Taxpayer Dollars: Rebalancing Education Cost and Value 

VIDEO: Vermont Parents tell their stories about how school choice has changed their children’s lives. 

COMMENTARY: Will More Towns Follow North Bennington’s Move to Independent School System? 

INDEPENDENT STUDY: School Vouchers and Home Prices — JHR Accepted Version

 

Bring the Case for School Choice to Your Community

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 11.32.34 AMCLICK to Watch Presentation

EAI president, Rob Roper, is taking this presentation on why Vermont should adopt a statewide school choice policy around Vermont. In a nutshell, school choice has the power to lower education costs (and therefore lower property taxes), improve student outcomes, and increase equity in the Vermont education system.

This video was taken in Vergennes on February 11, 2015. If you would like to schedule a presentation for your community, please contact Rob Roper at rob@ethanallen.org. For those who can’t make it to a live showing, please watch the video, and share it with your friends and neighbors!

Scheduled Presentation Dates:

February 19. At the Steak House in Barre. 5:30pm

March 10. Isley Library, Middebury. 7pm

March 13. At the American Legion Hall in Bristol.

March 26. Damon Hall in Hartland, 6:30-9:00 pm

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by Rob Roper

A persistent attack on school choice by its opponents is that allowing parents to choose the best school to fit their child’s needs is somehow an elitist policy that only benefits the “rich.” This is baloney. In fact, the opposite is true.

A recent series of studies by the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) repeatedly demonstrates that the real beneficiaries of choice are children in poverty.

CREDO did state-specific studies in California, Ohio and Louisiana, and a comprehensive study of charter school outcomes nationwide (16 states have charter schools). Here’s what they said looking at the nation as a whole:

Charter students in poverty in 2013 continue to have an advantage over their TPS [Traditional Public School] counterparts. The difference in 2013 is 14 additional days of learning. Both continuing and new schools have statistically significant and positive reading impacts for charter students in poverty.

And,

Compared to the learning gains of TPS students in poverty, charter students in poverty learn significantly more in math,… Moreover, this difference in performance has widened. In 2009, charter students in poverty had about seven additional days of learning in math than their TPS peers, while in 2013 the advantage is 22 additional days of learning for charter students in poverty. Mirroring the reading findings, both continuing and new schools in 2013 have positive math impacts for charter students in poverty. (Emphasis added, National Charter School Study 2013)

In other words, the longer competition has a chance to influence and improve the system, the better these students’ outcomes tend to be.

Students not in poverty don’t see this kind of advantage, according to CREDO. They do just as well or better in a TPS (to use CREDO’s descriptor) environment. Why the difference? This dynamic was reflected in recent comments by David Manning, principal of Johnson Elementary School, who testified before the House Education Committee that, “Our low-income students and students with disabilities do struggle to follow the rules more than their non-disabled peers. The problem is the school is only set up for one group of children to succeed.” (Emphasis added, VTDigger, 2/24/15) And that “one group” in TPS is not kids in poverty.

As former Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca lamented as he exited the office, “I am particularly concerned that we still have not made major progress in closing the achievement gap for students living in poverty…. Vermont students demonstrated significant achievement gaps based on family income….. The smallest gap was 14 percentage points in fourth grade mathematics, and the largest was 23 percentage points in fourth grade reading.” (11/26/13)

The children of parents who are educated and provide stable family lives (often with more income, but not necessarily) are the ones who thrive in a TPS system because their parents are the ones who run for school board, volunteer in the classroom, lobby teachers and administrators, threaten to leave for private schools if their needs are not met, and otherwise shape the one-size-fits-all environment to fit the needs of their kids.

The way to break this dynamic is to empower students in poverty with other alternatives – SCHOOL CHOICE! As CREDO shows, when given these options, children from impoverished backgrounds can and do thrive.

The TPS system, despite decades of trying and hundreds of millions of dollars in increased spending since the passage of Act 60, has failed in this critical goal of bridging the achievement gap between rich and poor. The bridge is school choice. Those wealthy enough will always have it. But let’s give all kids the resources and the opportunities to pay the toll.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute


 

CLICK HERE TO TAKE THE EAI SCHOOL CHOICE SURVEY! 
Is now the time to expand school choice in Vermont? 

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Posted by Rob Roper 

At the end of a morning’s testimony, Rep. Sarah Buxton (D-Tunbridge), who serves as Clerk of the House Education Committee, went off on a tear about Vermont ninety-plus tuitioning towns. Buxton, a virulent opponent of school choice, went so far as to accuse tuitioning towns of abandoning their responsibility and of not being engaged in fostering opportunities for their children. Ironic, since children in choice towns tend to have significantly more opportunities than those assigned to a school based on the arbitrary determinate of their address.

Take the EAI School Choice Survey

This is what Buxton’s had to say before the committee secretary turned off the recording of the meeting:

“I am deeply troubled that almost 40 percent of our school districts have given up their responsibility of engaging their community and operating one or more grades in their communities. And those are the 91 towns that have some form of choice. If you live in one of those communities – it’s 40 percent of our school districts in the state of Vermont – where communities aren’t engaged, and you don’t have a budgeting process, you have for at least some of those grades the responsibility of that community and that board is simply a ministerial function. It isn’t engaging in what opportunities are there for those children in those communities. They have ceded it to a market process.

“I appreciate that that may remain, but despite the fact that it may remain, I don’t think we’re being honest with ourselves when we’re saying a child in Danville [a non-tuitioning town] and a child in Peacham [a tuitioning town] have the same level of community conversation around a child at the high school level, because at that point – and I know you’re looking quizzically at me and we can talk more about this, but it is –” Recording Cut Off by Committee Secretary.

A parent in that area whose child takes advantage of the tuitioning system noted the absurdity of Buxton’s choice of towns to compare. Danville, which Buxton was holding up as the superior system, has been rocked by scandal in recent years.

A 25-year old music teacher pled guilty to having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old student in 2011. In 2013 the principal of Danville High School and the superintendent were accused of failing to report an allegation that a teacher abused a female student by grabbing her buttocks to the Department of Children and Families, which they are required to do by law. And in just the past few weeks, the new principal — a former Vermont principal of the year – was charged with stealing $1600 from the school safe. As WCAX reports:

“Police say surveillance video shows Principal Edwin Webbley taking the money.…This is not his first brush with the law. In 2012, he was charged with DUI after crashing his car into his home in Bristol. (WCAX)

Most likely Buxton was unaware of these issues when ascending her high horse, which calls to mind a story about former Texas senator Phil Gramm. Gramm, a strong school choice proponent was listening to testimony from someone who insisted that “experts” in the school bureaucracy were better qualified than parents to make decisions about what children need.

Gramm challenged, “You know my kids better than I do? Really? What are their names?” Someone might similarly challenge Sarah Buxton. Unfortunately, her attitude seems prevalent in that committee.

CLICK to Take the EAI School Choice Survey

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS–The spate of brutal and systematic attacks on Christian communities in Syria, Iraq and Egypt by the Islamic State has surged.  Yet despite this targeted violence, there’s a climate of international indifference by many governments and even some Christian communities in the West towards this modern-day religious persecution.

Look at the recent roster of IS terror: in Libya, jihadi militants capture and then behead 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt.  This barbaric attack prompted the UN Security Council to issue a statement condemning the “heinous and cowardly” murders.   The Council added, “ISIL must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence and hatred it espouses must be stamped out.”

The UN’s Human Rights Chief Zeid Raaad Al-Hussein called the executions a “vile crime targeting people on basis of their religion.”  This action carried out in the increasing lawlessness of Libya, was not the first time Coptic Christians or their churches have been attacked.

Speaking from Rome, Pope Francis stated,  “It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants…the martyrs belong to all Christians.”

A week later in Syria’s remote Hassakeh Province, IS terrorists seized hundreds of Assyrian Christian women and children for a yet undetermined fate while 33 Christian villages were attacked.

In Iraq, ISIL’s lightening military advances into the northern cities such as Mosul have targeted minority groups such as Christians, Yezidis and Kurds.  A recent UN Report on Iraq conceded,  “The safety and security of members of Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious communities in areas controlled by ISIL remain of grave concern, particularly the thousands of women and children who remain in captivity.”

After ISIL seized Mosul city, Christians were targeted for conversion to Islam or death.  Christian houses were marked by the sign of “N” for Nazerene.

Middle Eastern Christians form an ancient quilt of Assyrian, Coptic, Chaldean Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholic communities from Egypt through Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Christians have formed a unique fabric in these overwhelmingly Muslim societies and have traditionally excelled in business, education and the arts.   These are Arab Christians whose roots in the region stretch back two thousand years predating Islam.

During Syria’s secular regime before the civil war, Christians made up about ten percent of the population of 22 million people.  In neighboring Lebanon, Christians comprised over a third of this once prosperous and secular land.  Conflict and diaspora have dwindled their numbers.

The vengeful intolerance and white heat hated ISIL and its affiliates have for Mideast Christians, seems only matched for an equally hateful mass killings of fellow Muslims.  Though the tiny Christian communities pose no real political threat to the IS rise, the very same communities can be held hostage for propaganda and intimidation value.

Vulnerable Mideast Christians have long been targeted by Al-Qaida and Al Nusra  terrorists.  Just a year ago IS was proclaimed by President Obama as no more that a “junior varsity” terrorist organization.  Six months later its warriors had seized large parts of northern Iraq and were at the gates of Baghdad.  American airstrikes on IS started only in August, and while partially effective, have failed to stem the IS surge.

The rise of ISIL has initially been helped by the initial American underestimation of the threat and embarrassing indecision over policy.  The wider reason rests with a regional power vacuum created in part by the Obama Administration’s indifference to the fate of Iraq’s fragile stability in the wake of the American troop pullout  and a dithering disconnect on defense issues.

But does ISIL wish to use Christian persecution as a trap to lure Western (and let’s admit post-Christian countries) back into the Middle East cauldron?  Possibly.

Significantly, despite the use of American and allied airpower against IS targets, changing the regional chessboard will require boots on the ground to counter, confront, and defeat this scourge.  But the troops should be Arab, not American as not to fall into the trap of  “the Christian West” fighting Islam, of the French to revive the argument of an ex -colonial power, or the Turks to avoid the pitfall of the former Ottoman colonial ruler returning to the region.

IS strives to forcibly create a Sunni Moslem Theocratic State.  We are not talking about a reasonably pluralistic state nor a typical Arab autocracy, but a medieval Islamic caliphate, where there’s no room for any religious nor social dissent.  It’s doubtful most Sunni Moslems favor this path but it is equally certain that IS intimidation and terror are quite convincing given no serious counterforce.

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John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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by John McClaughryJohn McClaughry

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees are struggling valiantly to report a balanced General Fund budget for Fiscal Year 2016. The presently estimated shortfall is about $130 million, eight percent of the proposed General Fund budget. This is a result of the chronic tendency of legislatures to find ever more things to spend money on, and state revenues currently coming in well under the projections of funds available.

Raise taxes? It was eight years ago that the present governor declared, repeatedly, that “Vermont has no remaining tax capacity”. This year Gov. Shumlin’s proposal for a 0.7% payroll tax is getting a “less than lukewarm” reception in House Ways and Means. Even some of the legislature’s most liberal members are gun shy about levying any significant tax increases.

With no ability to print money to cover looming deficits, no realistic prospect of “stimulus” payments from Washington, and little or no prospect for increasing the tax burden, it is now crunch time in Montpelier.

The appropriators are always tempted to raid funds and revenue flows to get to the goal of a balanced budget. The most tempting targets are the annual contributions to the state employees’ and teachers’ retirement funds. But these two funds are now $3.2 billion out of actuarial balance – the result of years of legislative underfunding.

Raiding another tempting target – the $300 million earmarked for transfer to the Education Fund – clearly means higher school property taxes. But the legislature and governor have raised the two school property tax rates four years in a row, and taxpayers are howling about it.

So the appropriations committees are now in “shave here, squeeze there, postpone here” mode. That calls forth urgent lobbying pressure from every interest dependent on taxpayer funding, chanting: “not us, not now”. Among the loudest is the state employee’s union, which has already told Gov. Shumlin that it won’t accept any reductions in pay or benefits.

The likely result of all this is a shakily “balanced” budget,  where the statutes still require state agencies and their galaxy of nonprofit  satellites to run the same programs and enforce the same laws, but with less money.

There is always some prospect of doing that by “streamlining” agency operations, but those “low hanging fruit” opportunities have shrunk. One can’t help but sympathize with state employees who are told they must do as much but with less.

What should – but never does – happen is for the governor and legislature to address the underlying question: “which functions and services of state government must be maintained and effectively performed?” Some easy answers are: payment of interest on the state’s debt, maintaining a legislature and an independent judiciary, holding biennial elections, preventing the spread of infectious diseases, and bringing lawbreakers to justice.

This question implies that some limits must be put on what state government sees itself as responsible for achieving.

Gov. Shumlin has installed a “Results Based Accountability System” under a very capable Chief Performance Officer. But it is not that officer’s job to decide what the sprawling agencies of government are supposed to do. She will press them to adopt strategic plans and choose measurable indicators (“metrics”) for needed outcomes. That’s to the good.

But a perusal of the Act that created her position (Act 186 of 2014) shows the limitless breadth of desired outcomes. The state must see to it that “Vermonters are healthy. Vermont’s environment is clean and sustainable. Vermont’s families are safe, nurturing, stable, and supported. Children succeed in school. Youths choose healthy behaviors,” and on and on.

Every imaginable interest seems to have pushed its concerns into this law’s long list of outcomes and metrics. Can the Chief Performance Officer produce these results? Of course not. She can only press the agencies to organize and work effectively to get the required results. Unlimited outcomes require unlimited resources.

Legislators should use this budget crisis to initiate a full scale Performance Review, conducted by public spirited appointees independent of the interests at stake. It would propose that the legislature adopt a short list of essential core functions, and jettison the present long list of open-ended and unattainable outcomes. We simply can’t raise enough tax dollars to assure that all “youths choose healthy behaviors”.

The Vermont Democratic Platform of 2004 boldly pledged a “top-to-bottom ‘performance review’ of the functions of state government… to find creative, smart new ways to make government run more efficiently on the resources we have.” (The Democratic candidate didn’t win the election, so they promptly shelved the idea.)

That kind of review, courageously performed over three to five years, is the only hope for reducing state government to a level that Vermonters can actually pay for without crippling their economy, endangering the state’s bond rating, driving out the most productive people, and absorbing Vermont’s once-free citizens into the embrace of an increasingly less solvent do-everything  State.

- John McClaughry, a former member of the House and Senate, is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).

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by Hayden Dublois

In recent years, Vermonters have seen a flurry of laws come out of Montpelier which have hiked tax rates, increased State spending, and imposed new burdensome regulations — all things that make Vermont a less affordable place to live and work. This Legislative session was supposed to be different. After the 2014 elections, we heard countless politicians say that they were “humbled” by the outcome, that they understood our concerns, and that tax relief and fiscal restraint would set the tone for the new biennium. In reality, just the opposite has occurred.

Legislators from all corners of the state are proposing and signing on to new bills which make life even less affordable for low and middle-income Vermonters. In the first month and a half of this new biennium, we’ve seen a surge in three types of all-to-familiar legislation: bans, taxes, and regulations.

First, the bans. H.93 raises the smoking age from 18 to 21, and thereby prohibits any Vermonter under 21 from using or purchasing any tobacco product, substitute or paraphernalia. Apparently, young adults are smart enough to enlist in the military and play a role in deciding who the next leader of the free world will be, but we’re not smart enough to regulate our individual choices. And given our State’s $100+ million budget deficit, I’m surprised that legislators are so eager to sacrifice millions of dollars in existing tobacco revenue by raising the tobacco age. I’m not advocating for young adults to smoke — personally, as a young adult, I detest cigarettes — but I do support the right for individuals to make these decisions themselves.

H.59 bans the sale and use of any flavored liquid nicotine products, yet another assault on the right of individuals to make their own lifestyle decisions. H.244 is certainly a type of ban — that is, it bans you from playing the Vermont State Lottery. This repeal of the state lottery would eliminate some millions of dollars in revenue, which currently goes into the Education Fund. Vermonters would be left to pay for this revenue loss in other ways — like property taxes.

H.260 is a ban in a broad sense of the word: It “bans” employment at certain wage rates by setting the statewide minimum wage rate at $15.00 per hour, starting in 2016. Bear in mind, Vermont’s current minimum wage rate is $9.15 per hour. Increasing the minimum wage rate to $15 per hour amounts to a 64 percent increase. Furthermore, the bill would eliminate the separate wage rate for service/tipped employees. In other words, the minimum wage rate for service/tipped employees — which is currently $4.575 per hour — would increase by a 228 percent. Employers will surely not be able to raise the wages of all of their workers of all of their workers, so they’ll likely be left with one of three choices. One, cut jobs which would have existed at the $9.15 minimum wage rate. Two, cut hours for employees across the board. Or three, pass the costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices. Vermonters can’t afford to absorb all of the costs associated with this legislation.

Next, taxes. Already this biennium, we have seen several proposed tax hikes. Both H.24 and H.235 would impose a brand-new excise tax of 2 cents per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages. While this tax would certainly impact small-business owners, it would also likely disproportionately hurt low-income Vermonters (because of the lump-sum, regressive nature of the tax).

H.265 is an especially ambitious set of tax increases. It raises the cigarette tax rate by $1.25, bringing the total tax on a pack of cigarettes to $4 — a 45 percent increase. It also raises taxes on smokeless tobacco and snuff by 45 percent, and it raises the floor stock tax on cigarette stamps by 861 percent (from $0.13 to $1.25). Assuming rates in other states are held even, Vermont would rise to number two in the nation for excise taxes on cigarettes. Low-income Vermonters, who are more likely to purchase tobacco products and to be hurt by regressive excise taxes, will bear a substantial new burden. In a similar vein, H.233 proposes to tax e-cigarettes and other vapors at a rate of 92% of their wholesale price. Lastly, for some legislators who are still clinging to the idea of government-run healthcare, H.88 establishes a public health care option, financed not only by premium payments, but also by a 4 percent payroll tax on Vermont employees and an 8 percent payroll tax on employers. While tax season for Vermonters isn’t until April, it has already begun at the State House.

The proposed regulations are far too numerous to delve into, but here is just a sampling of how our legislators have been spending their time: Regulating leaf blowers (H.137), requiring employers to provide paid sick leave (S.15 and H.187), establishing the crime of public intoxication (H.31), requiring warnings on sugar sweetened beverages (H.89), regulating the propane industry (H.126), regulating firearms (S.31), and many others. These are your tax dollars, hard at work.

An article caught my eye today: It pointed out that Vermont’s middle income growth rate between 2009 and 2013 was -5.9 percent (one of the larger declines nationwide), while the wealthiest 20 percent of households saw their incomes increase by 2.8 percent in Vermont over the same period (the sixth largest increase nationwide). Income growth by any class of individuals is not a bad thing, but the figures were indicative of a troubling reality: We’re heading down a path which ends with only the wealthiest Vermonters able to afford to live in our wonderful state. It’s time we get off that path and head in a different direction.

Hayden Dublois writes a bi-weekly op-ed column. He is a resident of Manchester and an Economics student at Middlebury College. Dublois is a political commentator and strategist, as well as a member of the 2013 graduating class of Burr and Burton Academy

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By Rob RoperRob Roper

There are plenty of reasons for parents and kids to love school choice in the 90 plus Vermont towns that already have it, and there are plenty of solid educational and social arguments for expanding the program to all Vermont towns. But why should folks without kids care? Property values.

A recent study by Susanne E. Cannon (DePaul University), Bartley R. Danielsen
(North Carolina State University) and David M. Harrison (Texas Tech University), School Vouchers and Home Prices, shows that living in one of Vermont’s tuitioning towns substantially increases the value of your home. Given that a house is the largest investment most people will make in their lifetimes and the fact that in 2014 Vermont was the only state in the union to see home values decline (http://vtdigger.org/2014/08/31/states-housing-market-lags/), expanding school choice is an attractive policy.

The logic is intuitive. Many people choose where to live based on the educational opportunity their zip code offers. Towns with a good school attract more demand, which increases prices. Therefore, it makes sense that towns with access to more good schools – in fact, pretty much any good school along with the ability pick the one that’s right for you – is considerably more valuable.

How much more valuable? As much as $24,181 (or a 16.1% increase) more valuable for an 2000 square foot home with three bedrooms and two baths. As the authors break down their findings:

… the presence of school choice alternatives within a 20 minute commute increases property values by approximately $10,879 (or 6.9%), while the more restrictive presence of higher achieving schools within this same drive time catchment area is associated with a substantively higher $24,181 (16.1%) increase in housing prices. Similar results are found with respect to our 30 minute commuting distances…. Alternative schooling options within 30 minutes enhance property values by $7,618 (or 6.3%), while the presence of higher achieving schools within this same region increase values by $12,805 (or 8.5%).

Another way of looking at that is to say that when we assign students to poorly performing schools with no way to escape, we are effectively depressing real estate values in those school districts on average by more than $24,000.

One other valuable piece of information the study documents is the availability of choices. An argument critics of school choice in rural Vermont use is that there are too few schools to make choice meaningful. You may have “choice” but your still stuck with one school within driving distance. This is overwhelmingly not the case.

The typical Vermont residence which turned over during our sample period was also located within a 20 minute (one-way) commute of two to three schools, and a 30 minute (one-way) commute of over five schools. 

To put this in more concrete terms, the head of an independent school in southern Vermont where tuitioning is wide-spread, recently testified before the House Education Committee. She described how parents in southern Vermont can choose between the Mountain School at Winhall, the Long Trail School, Maple Street School, Manchester Elementary & Middle School and Dorset Middle School.

Having so many choices empowers parents and kids. Students with choice tend to be more invested in their education because they have made an active choice about where they want to be. Parents also play a more active role in their child’s education. As an example, this headmaster testified that at her school the percentage of parents who participate in teacher conferences is 100%. Choice increases the value of their education.

It also increases the value of their houses. The authors of the study note, “with each additional viable school choice/voucher alternative increasing property values by nearly $4,380 (or slightly over 3.0%).” This argues for a policy not of consolidating schools and making them more similar (the current goals being pursued by Montpelier), but rather expanding opportunities and making them more diverse.

We all want Vermont’s education policies and the opportunities we offer students and families to be unique and positive enough to attract and keep families here. This is especially important for a system that has lost over 20,000 students since the passage of Act 60 in 1997. School choice has proven its value in very real terms. It’s time we shared this value with all Vermonters.

- Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

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As Rep. Joey Donovan (D-Burlington) testified regarding legislations for anti Second Amendment charter change for the city of Burlington, Rep. Ron Hubert (R-Milton) asked whether or not the change would effectively make it illegal for someone, say, leaving for or coming to Vermont for a hunting trip from using the Burlington Airport.

The charter change, H.92, would prohibit firearms on properties of establishments licensed to serve alcohol on premises — not just the drinking establishment, the entire property, including the parking lot and any grounds. As Rep. Hubert pointed out, the Airport has a bar. Anyone traveling through the airport who is also transporting a firearm would, therefore, be in violation of the law.

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS–The vast swath of nine countries bordering the southern reaches of the Sahara desert are marked by poverty, drought and chronic instability.  Yet these oft-forgotten lands are increasingly making the headlines as in the case of Mali a few years ago, when militant Muslim factions made power grabs against weak and often unstable governments.  The widening attacks by the Islamic jihadi group Boko Haram in Nigeria underscore the challenge.

Now the UN and its humanitarian partners have launched a massive $2 billion aid appeal which shall offer humanitarian assistance to the twenty million people who are short of food and the nearly three million people who have been uprooted from their homes.  People who have lost hope and could be the prey of terror groups.

“Escalating violence is a deeply worrying pattern that threatens hard-won gains in curbing the trend of growing needs in the Sahel,” states Robert Piper, the UN regional coordinator.   He stresses, “Violence in northeast Nigeria, the volatile situation in Mali, and the crisis in the Central African Republic are creating more suffering for communities that are already amongst the poorest in the world.”

The UN’s relief coordinating Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)  warns, “High levels of chronic vulnerability persist in the Sahel.  Early in 2015 an estimated 20 million people are food insecure…acute malnutrition is expected to threaten the lives and development of  5.8 million children under five years of age.”

Equally, the spreading conflicts and humanitarian crisis has particularly affected Chad, Mali and Niger.

The Sahel comprises the geographic and climatic zone of transition between the Sahara to the north and the savanna to the South.  Over 145 million people live in the nine selected countries.

The UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos stresses, “We need the support of the international community and sustained government leadership to ensure that we do not forget the people of the Sahel.”

Take Mali for example.  The former French colony had a reasonably democratic government until 2012 when a combination of tribal militias and Al-Qaida terrorists tried to takeover.  Although quick and focused French military intervention stopped the onslaught and stabilized the situation, the country of 17 million is amongst the poorest in the world.

The UN’s Sahel plan has slated $377 million for Mali mostly in the area of food aid; nearly one million people face severe food insecurity while 1.8 million more are moderately affected.  Equally the UN must deal with 143,000 refugees as well as large numbers of internally displaced persons from the earlier conflicts.

The Sahel’s regional instability is highlighted by the dangerous and deteriorating situation in Libya which borders both Chad and Niger.

Escalating terrorist attacks inside Libya such as the savage beheading of 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt, as well as a growing climate of lawlessness, highlight the “imminent danger confronting Libya, its people and the wider region” warned the UN’s special envoy Bernardino Leon.   He told the Security Council that, “Extremist   groups with radical ideologies, associated with Al Qaida have been on the rise since the end of the armed conflict in 2011.”

Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohammed al-Dairi stated the challenge to the Security Council; terrorism flourishes “in a front stretching from the Middle East to North Africa to the Sahel.”

He added that Libya has become “a hub for terrorism in North Africa and the Sahel.”

Americans have witnessed the unstable aftermath of the Libyan revolt which saw the bloody attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in 2012 which killed the American Ambassador Chris Stevens and three security personnel.

ISIS and its armed allies are turning already fragmented Libya into another ethnic conflict.  Recall that Libya, even during the days of Colonel Ghadafi’s regime, meddled in the Sahel region. Established ethnic and transportation links allow criminal gangs to smuggle illegal migrants and drugs from the Sahel countries to Libya and into Europe.

Thus the Sahel’s importance goes beyond the obvious.  Rebuilding a fragile humanitarian foundation in an already poor area facing the spillover from regional conflicts such as Libya remains crucial as part of a wider security architecture. Humanitarian aid may serve as a firebreak to keep violence from spreading to  a tinderbox region.

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John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China   (2014).

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by Shayne Spence

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 8.36.17 PM

Rep John Bartholomew (D-Hartland) is proposing a ban on all plastic grocery shopping bags in Vermont.  Grocery stores, convenience stores and gas stations would be required to use expensive canvas bags or paper bags in order to help their customers get from the store to their vehicles with whatever they purchased.

This will further drive up the cost of doing business in Vermont, and grocery or convenience stores near the Connecticut River may decide to move their stores to the other side in order to avoid yet another unfunded mandate from state government.

Bartholomew’s bill is “patterened after the recent California ban,” which was the first in the nation.  That California law also gave grocery stores the ability to charge 10 cents or more for each bag they give out, which, if followed here, would push the cost of this law directly onto every Vermonter at the grocery store.

American Progressive Bag Alliance (which opposed the California law) director Lee Califf said, “SB 270 was never a bill about the environment.  It was a backroom deal between the grocers and union bosses to scam California consumers out of billions of dollars in bag fees without providing any public benefit.” “

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