Will our political leaders’ plan to centralize Vermont’s education system work?

by Robert Maynard

The latest drive to centralize/”consolidate” Vermont’s education system was recently chronicled in this Vermont Digger article:

A proposal that would dramatically change the structure of public education is gaining traction in the Vermont Legislature.

School boards would be consolidated into smaller units that would govern larger groups of students, if a plan now in the House continues to build momentum. The House Education Committee is considering the elimination of the state’s 60 supervisory unions and “realigning” the state’s 282 school districts into 30 to 60 districts. The deadline for the consolidation of school boards would be January 2018.

The way public schools are currently managed at the local level is outdated, lawmakers say. They believe Vermont’s 19th century governance structure is hampering educational opportunities for students, especially in rural areas.

Lawmakers say changing the way schools are governed will improve curriculum development, teaching practices, access to data and ultimately lead to better educational outcomes for students.

So, is our “ 19th century governance structure” really “ hampering educational opportunities for students,” or is it an advantage that our political leaders’ hellbent rush toward centralizing our education system is squandering away? In a March 2010 policy document titled “School Regionalization and Parental Choice,” author and Ethan Allen Institute founder John McClaughry argued that “For 60 years the education commissioner has been trying to reduce the number of school districts from what is now 290 to eventually 12.” Here is a summary of McClaughry’s critiques of the 2010 attempt at educational centralization:

The proposed regional school district consolidation bill (H.782) would create a process for voluntary formation of multi-town Unified Union School Districts. The language and process appear to allow the voters in 90 tuition towns to preserve the parental choice enjoyed by the parents and pupils of their towns. In practice, however, this may well prove to be an illusion.

The impact that consolidation would have on educational choice in Vermont was examined in a May 2010 Heartland Institute article titled “Vermont School Consolidation Would End School Choice Option.” At least the proponents of centralization in 2010 paid lip service to wanting to preserve Vermont’s tradition of being I “choice state”: ‘But Hartwell also expressed support for preserving choice. “Vermont is a choice state, and choice is going to have to be protected along with independent schools. We have a lot of them, and they are very good,” said Hartwell.’

Now the tradition that made Vermont a choice state is derisively referred to as a “19th century governance structure” that is “hampering educational opportunities for students.” How can we preserve Vermont’s school choice option through centralization/consolidation when its proponents are so disdainful of the tradition, which created that option in the first place?