Vermont is now well into the throes of coping with a new education governance law (Act 46). The law’s stated goal is to move the State “toward sustainable models of education governance.” That is, the State wants to encourage local school districts to merge into a “preferred education governance structure” built around fewer but larger supervisory districts with unified tax bases.
The State’s carrot is reduced residential school property tax rates, which offer disappears in two years for districts that fail to act. The State’s stick is that the State Board of Education will impose a mandatory consolidation plan in 2018 if a district fails to respond to the carrots.
Underlying Act 46 is the long-standing desire of state education leaders, now headed by the Governor, to reduce the welter of school governance models into a small number of varieties of mega-districts. That’s what “sustainable” means, as viewed from Montpelier.
If or when this march toward “one big school system” concludes, there will remain at least three important questions.
With new, larger districts replacing town districts, where will the locus of political control of public schools lie? Most likely, it will lie with the education bureaucracy and the teachers union, both of which are organized throughout the mega-district. The citizens of the component towns, ill-equipped to form political coalitions throughout the mega-district, will soon become largely irrelevant. This is the “waste management district” model.
Will the preferred education governance plans, once fully installed, be likely to at least retard the steady rise of school property taxes? The advocates for district consolidation claim efficiencies of scale, but have been careful not to promise significant net savings to taxpayers. As the new districts close underpopulated or outmoded schools, any savings are likely to be offset by increased transportation costs. The probable result: some initial efficiencies, dwindling over time as the mega-district bureaucracy increases and the teachers’ union gains more power to increase their members’ compensation at the expense of poorly-organized taxpayers.
Finally, what will become of the school choice now enjoyed by the people of ninety towns, once they are pulled or pushed into large districts with operating public schools? Agency of Education lawyer Gregory Glennon, in a four page memo that found its way to Vermont Public Radio, said of the choice issue “This appears to be a case of the legislature having spoken, but we aren’t sure what they have said.”
Rep. David Sharpe, the architect of Act 46, states emphatically that “choice districts can’t be forced to give up choice.” He can point to Sec. 4(c), which reads in part “Nothing in this act shall be construed to restrict or repeal… the ability of a school district that [now] provides for the education of all resident students in one or more grades by paying tuition on the students’ behalf, to continue to provide education by paying tuition on behalf of all students in the grade or grades…”.
Sharpe’s reading may turn out to be true, but the temptation of the State’s financial incentives to merge into the “preferred governance structures”, plus pressure from the Agency of Education, might persuade local voters to give up choice, at least of independent schools.
The state’s public education establishment tends to be skeptical of parents’ ability to make the correct choices for their children. They are aghast at the thought of government schools having to compete for student tuitions.
Instead of pushing forward with the complex and often murky provisions of Act 46, the legislature and education bureaucrats should give up on the waste management model.
They should empower parents to choose the schooling best suited to their children, from among a wide assortment of diverse public and independent providers.
They should tell public schools that they, like independent schools, have to pay their way by attracting student tuitions, instead of hitting up the taxpayers for their annual budgets.
They should offer special education vouchers to supplement tuition amounts.
They should repeal the universal preschool mandate, and limit “free” preschool programs to the 15% of children who really need them, instead of spreading the money over the remaining 85% as “free” day care.
Does that sound radical? Yes, it does. But as none other than President Obama has emphatically said (speaking of health care), “My guiding principle is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition.” Let’s give it a try.
- John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).