The Shumlin education agenda

Lots of pieces, few specifics

by Robert Maynard & Rob Roper

The Senate Education Committee met on Wednesday January 18th to hear Special Assistant to the Governor Susan Bartlett lay out Governor Shumlim’s concerns and priorities on education reform. She began by expressing the Governor’s desire that every child in Vermont receive a quality education regardless of his background. She then went on the list a short set of general guidelines – the good, the bad and the ugly — meant to achieve this end. These included expanded high school choice, expanded preschool, school consolidation, and duel enrollment.

It is a large agenda, but one that came with few specific suggestions about how to implement it. Senator Mullen, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, seemed concerned over the lack of detail. Mullin wants the Committee to be able to work with the Governor, but expressed frustration that the Administration was essentially dumping the whole thing on the Education Committee and expecting the Committee to do all the work. He particularly noted that they were already under pressure to adjourn on time and the extra work of having to fill in most of the details from the Governor’s list of concerns and priorities would make doing so a bit harder.

School Choice. Shumlin’s call for full, high school choice has advocates both excited and wary at the same time. The bill that will be the vehicle for this is S.201. While more school choice is a good thing, the question of how Vermont’s Independent schools would fit into this plan is not clear. Currently, 92 Vermont “tuitioning” towns that do not have public schools within their district can use the tax dollars to send their children to (in varying degrees) the schools, public or private, of their choice. Shumlin’s plan would only allow the money to follow the student to another public school. However, the understanding is that the 92 tuitioning towns would not be effected. This will, of course, raise questions of fairness as well as legality.

Other questions surrounding school choice arise over the issue of when choice should begin. Sumlin’s plan calls for 9th grade. A bill introduced by Senator Richard Westman (R-Lamoille), S.192, asks that choice also be included for students in grades 7 & 8. Representatives of Lamoille Union High School, Principal Brain Schaffer and Director of Guidance and School Counseling Mark Flynn, testified to the Committee members about the need to expand choice down at least to grade 7, as this, they thought, would better support the needs of students. Others believe choice should include all grades, and others believe school choice should not exist at all.

Rep. Allison Clarkson (D-Woodstock) followed Bartlett with her bill, H.508, which would prohibit parents in tutioning towns from using their choice to send children to out of state schools. In the past, Clarkson has stated that her ultimate goal is to eliminate school choice all together and “capture” current tuitioning students in Independent schools for the public school system. It should be noted that Clarkson’s own children attended an elite New England prep school that is neither public nor in Vermont. (The hypocrisy is nauseating.)

School District Consolidation: This issue would also seem to pose a conflict with the goal of expanded school choice and the desire to protect the current options of existing tuitioning towns. If current choice districts are consolidated into districts with non-tuitioning districts, law dictates that the tuitioning towns would lose their choice.

Expanding Pre-K: Expanding Pre-K education is a top priority of the governor. Speaking to a gathering of educators at the Capitol Plaza earlier in the week, Shumlin said, “We can’t get into every family home, the way we’d like to, [but we will push universal preK.] It is why I lifted the cap on pre-k and am now working on the zero to three population”. This, quickly following the 2007 controversial expansion of publicly funded pre-k to include three and four year olds, is exactly what opponents of the pre-k program predicted.

Bartlett cited the federal Head Start program as a successful example of an early education program. If this is the basis for expanding Vermont’s program, it is a poor one. In January 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services came out with a report on the Head Start program, essentially admitting it was a failure.

What Bartlett also did not mentioned was the fact that the U.S. does not fall behind international academic standards until the later grades. We are actually quite competitive in the early grade levels. This might lead one to conclude that we should leave early education alone and focus on the broken K-12 system, particularly the late middle school and high school years, where our students fall further behind their international peers the longer they are in the current system.

A Secretary of Education: Governor Shumlin desires to directly appoint a Secretary of Education, a goal shared by his predecessor, Jim Douglas. Currently Vermont has a Commissioner of Education appointed by the State Board of Education.

Duel Enrollment: The other high priority item was the matter of dual enrollment for high school juniors and seniors. A working group is due to release a report on this matter around the beginning of February. The idea is to have courses that would serve the dual purpose of being both high school and college courses. There was some talk about having them taught in a way that they would be true college courses and not merely Advance Placement courses. This would give the students who took them college credits. The issue was brought up again about how schools like St. Johnsbury Academy would be included in this program, as it is considered a public school for this purpose.