Education secretary & legislators lay out priorities

by Rob Roper

Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca

Universal Preschool is not a priority.

Montpelier — The House Education Committee met to lay out its own priorities for the 2011 legislative session, then met with Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca to hear his priorities and concerns.

Both parties shared a common goal to bridge the achievement gap that exists between students who live in poverty and their more well off peers. Interestingly, Universal Preschool, which had been a core campaign promise of Governor Shumlin, was not a priority of the committee. According to freshman committee member Patti Lewis (R-Berlin), early education came in last on the committee’s priority list.

Since any mention of universal preschool was conspicuously absent from Governor Shumlin’s inaugural speech, it’s beginning to look as Shumlin’s pre-k promise is being tossed under the school bus. Although Secretary Vilaseca testified that he was supportive of expanding pre-k, he admitted under questioning that he had no resources beyond his “bully pulpit” to do anything in support of the issue.

School choice cited as number one obstacle to consolidation.

Secretary Vilaseca is and has been a vocal supporter of school district consolidation and the goals set out last year in Act 153. Villaseca expressed satisfaction that twelve of Vermont’s sixty union districts are or are considering forming a Regional Education Districts (REDs), one school district made up multiple community school districts.

However, Vilaseca warned that there were unforeseen “unintended consequences” acting as impediments to district forming REDs. “The question is can we address those potential obsicals and one of them, probably the most obvious one is that we have ninety one communities in the state that have complete high school choice. If they join a RED, they loose that high school choice.”

Vermont’s 140 year history of school choice has been tremendously successful in the communities that have it. It is, in many cases, a motivating factor attracting families to those communities, and they will not willingly give up the opportunities school choice provides for their children.

Villaseca concluded, “Whether we address [the school choice obstacle] is another issue, but at least identifying that provides us an opportunity to see if we can do something about it.” He did not go into what that something might be.

However, comments made in response to questions on another issue give some insight into the secretary’s thinking.

My concern is and has been for may years is that we, you all pass some very good laws, or we pass rules, but then make it voluntary. So, then what you have then is one small state that should have a vision with everyone moving in the same direction, but then everyone’s allowed to do what they want to do. And I think that at some point as educational leaders we make a decision about what’s best for kids and then everyone has to be moving in that direction…. [It’s wrong] to hold the Department of Education accountable, or the federal government is holding the state accountable, when the state doesn’t’ have the ability to require districts to do certain things.

Student population continues to drop significantly

Since Act 60 was signed into law in 1997, Vermont’s K-12 student population has dropped from 106,000 to roughly 90,000 students today. It looks as though this trend will continue.

Secretary Vilaseca raised the question as a priority, how can we retain students in Vermont? “We’ve looked at our latest demographics; they’re scary…. Our student enrolment continues to decline, about 1.1 percent fewer students this year than last year….[W]e have statistically about 6100 or 6200 kids per grade where we traditionally have 7000. And that’s also the birth rates, somewhere in the 6000, 6200 kids are being born each year. So if we look long term without any in-migration then we know that in 4 or 5 yars our student population will be around 80,000.”

Despite the precipitous decline in student numbers, Villaseca argued that reducing the number of teachers is “not the way to go” in order to bring escalating education costs under control.