School choice: Proposal or empty slogan?
School choice: Proposal or empty slogan?
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By Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU – Published: January 16, 2012
MONTPELIER — In his budget speech last week, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed education reforms that have been championed in recent years by Republicans, including the idea of allowing all Vermont high school students to choose what public school they attend.
But some Republicans who back ideas contained in the speech say they were empty words uttered for political gain.
“It’s not a serious proposal,” Rep. Oliver Olsen, a Republican from Jamaica, said of Shumlin’s call for school choice. “He knows it’s dead on arrival.”
Education and education funding are perennial political focal points during elections and in the Legislature, and public school choice was one reform idea among several that Shumlin used a large portion of his budget speech to promote.
The governor also gave a personal shout-out to Sen. Kevin Mullin, a Rutland County Republican, and said the Legislature should consider Mullin’s “bold proposal” to reduce the state’s 60 supervisory unions to 16 to save millions in administrative costs.
He also promoted making the commissioner of education a secretary appointed by governors rather than the Board of Education; allowing high school students to use public education funding to take college courses; and giving $8 million to the University of Vermont and the Vermont State Colleges for a number of programs.
In laying out his ideas, Shumlin co-opted proposals long pushed by Republicans — though not always exclusively — which softened the GOP rebuttal to his speech.
In a Statehouse press conference after the budget address, Republican lawmakers were left praising some of Shumlin’s education ideas.
Sen. Randy Brock, for instance, a Republican from Franklin County who has announced he will challenge Shumlin for the governor’s office, supports consolidating administrative functions; supports school choice; and supports making the commissioner of education a gubernatorial appointee.
But Republicans also made it clear that though some of the ideas sound good, it remains to be seen how serious Shumlin is about them.
Asked how forcefully the administration will pursue the education reforms, Susan Bartlett, a special assistant to Shumlin who works on education issues, said: “I’m spending next Wednesday in the Legislature talking about it, so that’s a good start.”
On his prediction of the fate of school choice, however, Olsen is right: The idea will go nowhere in the Legislature. The chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. Joey Donovan, said last week her committee won’t consider the concept because it could suck the students, money and life out of already struggling schools.
“I think we’re not ready for school choice yet,” said Donovan, a Burlington Democrat.
Other ideas Shumlin highlighted also face an uphill battle but may have more traction and will at least be considered.
Mullin’s bill would reshape the state’s 60 supervisory unions to match the areas served by Vermont’s 16 regional technology education centers, a plan that could save $9 million in administrative costs, according to a back-of-the-envelope estimate from the state Department of Education.
Mullin, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said there’s a lot of room to shrink administrative costs and Vermont needs to make sure it’s spending its money wisely on education.
Mullin has introduced similar bills numerous times for more than a decade, but they have gone “absolutely nowhere,” he said.
But he was encouraged by Shumlin’s backing.
“Now it looks like with the governor’s support at least I’m justified in taking the committee’s time to flesh this out,” said Mullin.
Though Brock likes the general concept of consolidation, he criticized the estimated $9 million savings from the supervisory union bill as a drop in the bucket relative to the $1.3 billion education fund.
“Well, you know, you get enough drops and you’ve got a full bucket,” Bartlett responded.
Mullin’s counterpart in the House, however, plans to put her focus elsewhere, which could doom Mullin’s bill.
Donovan’s House Education Committee is tinkering with a bill passed in 2010 that gives incentives for school districts to merge and could reduce administrative costs. She says that law, Act 153, gives more control to local school districts and says Mullin’s idea would be more top down.
“I don’t think Vermonters want anything coming out of Montpelier telling them how to do it,” Donovan said.
But Donovan does support another idea that surfaced in Shumlin’s speech: making the education commissioner a secretary appointed by the governor. Her committee took the bill up last year, but didn’t finish its work and will continue trying to pass the legislation this session.
The move would give governors more control over education by making the top official at the Department of Education beholden to the governor rather than the Board of Education.
Supporters of the bill say it would make governors more accountable for education in Vermont, but opponents say it could subject the education system — and by extension Vermont’s children — to major policy shifts as administrations change.
Democratic support for the bill gives it a chance. In addition, one influential interest group has softened its opposition to the legislation.
The Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, the union that represents about 8,000 Vermont teachers, opposed the bill last year but is now open to working with the administration on the idea, said NEA spokesman Darren Allen.
Allen said the teachers union changed its position because they have grown to trust the Shumlin administration. He said former Gov. James Douglas was often critical of public education in Vermont.
“Done right, it’s a scenario that could make sense,” Allen said.
The Shumlin administration and the Legislature last year plugged a $176 million general fund budget gap in part by changing the education funding formula, which reduced by $23 million the amount of money that was transferred from the general fund to the education fund. The change will continue to put upward pressure on property taxes this coming year.
The administration essentially says the change is old news, but Olsen argues it’s one of the most substantive things the administration has done in terms of education funding. Olsen said it remains relevant as long as Shumlin claims he hasn’t raised broad-based taxes — which he continues to do.
“He doesn’t want to take the heat in an election year,” said Olsen.