3.13.2015 – Crossover, the Budget, Harlem Children’s Zone, and Education

This week was crossover so the activity level at the State House was hectic. As we all worked hard to get our policy bills voted out by Friday certain resources at the State House were put to the test. Our legislative counselors, the lawyers who work for us to draft legislation, were working well into the wee hours of the morning to get the work done. Everything that is drafted has to be proofread so the proofreaders were working overtime as well. The staff members at the State House, many of whom have young families, are amazing and deserve our sincere thanks for time they put in and the work they do.

The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, was able to vote out our “housekeeping” bill that makes mostly technical changes to statute. One more substantive change that we made was to merge the Working Lands Enterprise Board and the Agriculture and Forest Products Development Board.

The Development Board was created several years ago to be more visionary and transcend changes in administration. They have done really good work and we appreciate their service. Westminster organic vegetable farmer, Paul Harlow, has served and made significant contributions to the work of the Board.

The Working Lands Board was created to review applications and make awards to the successful recipients of Working Lands Enterprise Initiative grants. They have also done great work but staffing for the two boards became a challenge for the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and a way was found to combine the two while maintaining policy and grant making functions. Anything that improves efficiency in these days of very tight money is greatly appreciated.

When I run into people in the grocery store, I am frequently asked how things are going in Montpelier. While I try to be a “glass half full” sort of person and I am honored to serve my constituents, I have to be honest and respond that, from an economic standpoint, it’s horrible. In my 17 years in the Legislature, it has never been so hard and we are now talking about cutting or eliminating things that I never thought I’d see.

In some ways, we are in very good shape – our unemployment rate is very low and there are many more people covered with health insurance; only three percent are without coverage. We just have to get our hands around the higher spending rate versus the lower forecast revenue growth. In the end, I’m sure we will find a way to balance the budget but the results may have serious impacts on Vermonters.

One of the guiding principles that has been suggested as we do our budget building work is to not hurt the children. This brought to mind the work of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ) in New York City. Starting with one block in Harlem, their work over 30 years has now spread to 97 blocks of a New York neighborhood that has faced many challenges.

In 2000, HCZ started offering parenting classes known as Baby College, where parents were taught to read to their children and use forms of discipline other than corporal punishment. These relatively simple skills have made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of children. A judgment was made that HCZ would not necessarily bring those parents out of poverty but through a systematic, results-based approach, children would get the help they needed to break the cycle of generational poverty. Over time, the resources available have expanded so that now there is a “pipeline” that takes children from birth to preschool, elementary and high school, and on to college. The work of HCZ now also addresses health issues including obesity and children and adults attend physical education classes at the 50,000 square foot Harlem Armory.

All this started from the notion that if there was to be progress in bringing Harlem residents out of poverty, the focus had to be on improving the lives of the children. As we make hard decisions about our FY2016 budget, we need to keep all Vermonters in mind but also protect the children.

Which brings to mind the Education Bill, H.361, which is now in the House Ways and Means Committee.
The purpose of the bill is to make changes to the law regarding education funding, education spending, and education governance. The goal of the legislation is “to move the State toward integrated education systems responsible for the equitable delivery of high quality education to all resident prekindergarten–grade 12 students through a revised governance structure”. A lot of hard work went into this bill and we are lucky to have Windham County’s own Rep. Ann Manwaring of Wilmington and Rep. Emily Long of Newfane on the committee.

This bill puts the squeeze on small schools as did last year’s attempt at education reform, which will potentially have a negative effect on many small communities. The quality of the education offered in those small schools and the outcomes they achieve do not seem to be taken into consideration. It will also be interesting to learn if equal pressure is put on the very large schools, which cost as much as the small schools on a per pupil basis despite their opportunity for economy of scale.

Another goal is that education “is delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers value”. My understanding is that approximately $25-50 million dollars have been identified in savings, which amounts to 2 ½ -5 cents on the property tax. One wonders if that amount of savings will satisfy the people concerned about their property taxes and if it is worth the potentially devastating effects on our small communities.