Roper: One state school district? It depends

By Rob Roper

Someone leaked a memo from the Scott administration proposing some pretty big changes to the structure of the Vermont public school system, including the adoption of one statewide  school district, universal school choice including approved independent schools, a statewide teacher contract, and the elimination of the State Board of Education. The Scott folks say this is not a proposal, just some thoughts designed to spark debate. Okay, let’s debate.

Universal statewide school choice including independent schools is a great concept. The caution here is that, in the language of the memo, the Department of Education would determine which independent schools would be allowed to participate. Now it is a disinterested third party, New England Association of Schools and Colleges, that accredits independent schools for tuitioning purposes based on merit (meeting certain criteria). Allowing a political agency to cut out certain independent schools “just ‘cuz” should not be a part of any reform. “Universal school choice” is only a benefit when the system allows for many different choices.

Rob Roper

Rob Roper is the president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

One statewide school district might or might not be a good idea, depending upon how it is implemented. If the objective is to eliminate a lot of the mid-level bureaucracy at the supervisory union level while — and this is key — devolving decision-making power back to local principals and local, volunteer school boards, this would be great. However, if the idea is to consolidate power and decision making in Montpelier, then, no, this is not a good idea.

A statewide school district run by the Agency of Education and overseen by the Legislature, with limited authority, such as setting and funding a per-pupil tuitioning rate and monitoring statewide student testing, could be a less costly, more efficient improvement. It remains to be seen, however, if the Agency and the Legislature would, indeed, back off and allow individual schools to innovate on their own. If the result is local schools being run from Montpelier, then no thanks.

How would a statewide teachers’ contract fit into this dynamic? If you have universal school choice including independent schools, a statewide teachers’ contract makes little sense. Individual schools would need more flexibility, not less, to compete with one another for students.

As for getting rid of the State Board of Education, go for it! Right now, that body is making a dangerous power-play in the wake of Act 46 and, if it gets its way, will become another unaccountable, growing bureaucracy sucking power and money away from local communities.

So, there’s lots of baby and lots of bathwater in this trial balloon. We’ll keep an eye on it if it gets off the ground.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Rob Roper

4 thoughts on “Roper: One state school district? It depends

  1. Vermont’s APPROVED INDEPENDENT SCHOOL APPLICATION PROCESS is extensive. And, yes, anything the Agency of Education does to change the process should be suspect. But at some point, we have to trust the market process comprehensive School Choice brings to the table, which includes Independent Schools being able to apply and conform to reasonable requirements. Not only can the Vermont Independent School Association represent its members interests, Independent Schools can lobby on their own behalf, which includes using the courts to insure their ‘equal protection’ right to access public tuition dollars.

    Most importantly, any teacher’s contract negotiations become irrelevant in a School Choice environment, which is one of greatest benefits to School Choice. Constitutionally, regulation of rates of pay for schools will be no different for schools than they are in private sector businesses. The Federal and State Departments of Labor have the same jurisdictional authority in a comprehensive School Choice environment as they do today.

    As much as I caution on the tyranny of the majority in New England’s storied Town/School District Meeting process, comprehensive School Choice will virtually eliminate majority (i.e. mob) rule. If/when parents feel aggrieved, they can always choose an alternative education provider. So, let local school districts continue to operate. Their success in managing a given school will be measured by parent’s willingness to send their children to those schools.

    The problem with one State School District is that we all lose the diversity of local input and entrepreneurial actions.

    School Choice is the name of the game. Whatever happens, don’t throw that baby out with the bathwater.

  2. Does such a proposal have a chance to be discussed under the dome given the current makeup of the legislature? The VT NEA buys support from the Democrats and individual legislators and has for years—they are the most powerful lobby at the statehouse, and they will oppose this with hammer and tong!

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