At the beginning of the legislative session, I attended an Educational Summit at UVM. Many legislators attended and the event generated a lot of excitement for me because of the keynote speaker, Tony Wagner, from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. He talked about preparing our children for the 21st century world and making sure they had the skills that were in demand for the jobs of today. He talked about the Seven Survival Skills: critical thinking and problem solving (asking the right questions); collaboration across networks and leading by influence, not by authority; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication; the ability to access and analyze information; and curiosity and imagination.
This excited me because I am passionate about education. I believe it is the most important investment we make in our future – the future of our children, our state, and our country. As a sign of that belief, I have served on the Windham School Board for many years, the last fourteen as Chair. I was doubly excited because when I thought about the education offered at our very small, Windham Elementary School, I realized that we were already doing much of what was described in the Seven Survival Skills. So it was with great hope that I started the session, thinking that we would, perhaps, really focus on how we could incorporate Tony Wagner’s message in Vermont’s educational system.
This has proven to not be the case. The House Education Committee is now working on a bill that includes what seems to be the same proposal passed several years ago in Act 153 – the Regional Education District (RED) process, which has not met with much success. With rare exception, RED proposals have been voted down. In this newly proposed version, despite this past rejection, the RED process is mandated.
Having gone through the RED process, I, and my fellow Windham School Board members, know something about it. The stated goal was to improve educational opportunities for the students but the RED committee, itself, determined after several months that the governance change would do nothing to improve opportunities for the students, which is why Windham withdrew from the process. What kept the process going was the thought that Townshend and Jamaica might collaborate on a new unified school.
What this new RED structure would have done is require the superintendent to go to one monthly meeting and the CFO to generate one yearly budget rather than six. So the people earning the most would have their lives made easier while the volunteer RED members, and parents who wanted to participate, would potentially have to make long round trips to a central location in order to have a voice. The fact that this is being proposed again in the Legislature, but this time as a mandate, is disheartening.
At the same time, in Ways and Means, the conversation is about how we can cut spending. Once again, eliminating/altering the Small Schools grant is on the table. This is a discussion that a policy committee, not a money committee, should be having since it will have a potentially huge negative impact on the well-being of many schools that may be doing a great job preparing our children for the 21st century. This proposal is particularly odious to towns, like Dover, that, as a community, are already sending to the Education Fund, many times what they use to educate their own children. Careful consideration should be given before we take that step.
When Act 60 was created, the formula was based on per pupil spending so small schools were immediately at a disadvantage. This was acknowledged and rectified with the Small Schools grants because it was recognized that small schools are an important part of Vermont’s educational fabric. The original definition of a small school was any school with 100 students or fewer. It later changed to include any school with a grade with less than 20 students, which expanded the program significantly. A careful review of the policy with a look at the impact it will have on schools that are doing an excellent job is in order before we change the Small Schools grant policy.
Rather than Montpelier imposing a top down plan, which has already not worked, I would much prefer to see a process that works from the grass roots up – a process that allows Vermonters to be part of the conversation and state their values, what they stand for, and what they want Vermont’s educational system to look like in the future. This is the public engagement process that was used by the Vermont Council for Rural Development to develop the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative – a process that received input and buy-in from thousands of Vermonters. This allowed the VCRD to ultimately state that “over 97 percent of Vermonters polled endorsed the value of the working landscape as key to our future,” gaining great support for the program.
Engaging Vermonters in a carefully directed conversation about education would bring people together working creatively to set a positive educational course for the future. My hope is that we choose that option.