Commentary: Big Rewards for Thinking Inside the Box

by David Kelley

The authors of Act 46 said their goals were: 1. educational equity, 2. academic excellence, 3. efficiency, and 4. transparency. Only the Grinch who stole Christmas would oppose those goals.

But there is a serious disconnect between those goals and what Act 46 actually does. Act 46 does not reward equity. Act 46 does not reward academic excellence. It doesn’t reward efficiency, transparency or even making voters happy. Act 46 rewards school districts that adopt Montpelier’s “preferred structure.” Act 46 tells school districts we are going to give you money (and we’ll take it out of the state education fund) if you centralize your governance and adopt our “preferred structure” — that is to say, if you think inside our box and do away with local school boards. There is almost no empirical research that connects Montpelier’s preferred structure, with the professed goals. In fact, the experience of states like Maine and North Dakota would lead to a different conclusion. And if anyone thinks that a more centralized government is a more efficient government they need to stop taking psychedelic drugs.

There are some almost tragic consequences of thinking inside Montpelier’s box:

Act 46 short-circuits community engagement. Montpelier’s preferred structure means doing away with local school boards and merging them into a single, centralized board to govern multiple districts. Overwhelming research repeatedly underscores that community engagement is one of the essential qualities of high performing schools. Local school boards are the single most important connection to the community and they still provide the best budget oversight, despite all of Montpelier’s mandates.

Despite repeated claims to the contrary, Act 46 puts small schools on the chopping block. Many of the mergers give the new centralized board the power to redraw attendance boundaries. Towns with the most clout on a centralized board can close small schools or alter who attends those schools in the name of efficiency. There is a heavy price to be paid for that so-called efficiency. In terms of equity and quality many small schools offer opportunities that large schools don’t. The research is compelling:
See Link (at page 36) and Link.

And if consolidation is such a great benefit, why have we got to bribe anybody to do it?

Sadly, the State Board of Education has senselessly interpreted their preferred structure or the “box in which they want us to think” to require many towns that have had school choice for over 100 years to sacrifice that choice on the altar of consolidation. The number of towns resisting that sacrifice is a testament to the value of school choice.

Another consequence that is ignored by its promoters is the fact that Act 46 siphons money from school districts that need it most. There are some larger, more urban communities, where mergers make sense and where mergers are easily “accelerated.” They get the tax rewards. But those rewards are not pennies from heaven. Those rewards come from the state’s education fund. In order to reward the bigger, simpler and perhaps even sensible mergers, the state is effectively taking money away from those complex districts that don’t, or can’t, think inside Montpelier’s box. Those districts are the small, rural districts where schools are the heart and soul of a community. And if consolidation is such a great benefit, why have we got to bribe anybody to do it?

Quality, equity, efficiency and transparency is a tall order and there are no silver bullets. Montpelier’s “preferred structure” certainly isn’t one. If we want transparency we could start by creating a funding formula that the average voter can understand. Today even most legislators don’t understand the formula.

We all want efficiency. If Montpelier wants to help, then Montpelier should reward efficiency. We all want academic excellence. Montpelier should reward academic excellence. If we want educational equity we should have a meaningful conversation about what educational equity really means. What Montpelier doesn’t understand is that bigger is not necessarily better or more equitable.

Most of all we should encourage school districts to think outside the box. None of the most meaningful initiatives are easy. But some are trying with real imagination. Montpelier High School is reaching out to tuition-paying students from foreign countries. Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union is creating a program to bring more special education students back to the district, instead of sending them long distances to special schools. The biggest limits to efficiency and quality are the limits of our imagination. Instead of strait-jacketing that imagination with “preferred structures” we should be creating incentives to unleash local imagination and rewarding real solutions. Montpelier should be empowering local school districts, not disposing of them.

Thomas Jefferson put it this way: “If you can’t trust people to govern themselves, how can you trust them to govern others?” Act 46 answers that question. You can’t.

-  David Kelley, an attorney who is chair of the Hazen Union School Board.

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