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OPINION: The Revolution in Our School House, Part II: For Whom the Bill Tolls

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by David Kelley

In her 1953 book, Vermont Tradition, Dorothy Canfield Fisher tells the story of a town meeting in Arlington. The need for a new school had been simmering for years, but floods and modern traffic made it increasingly important to rebuild the town’s bridges. Education was a lofty goal, but the need for bridges was real and urgent.

The bridge advocates seemed to have the better argument until one of the town’s grocers stood up and said, “We are being told that our town cannot afford to keep its bridges safe and also provide for its children a preparation for life that will give them a fair chance alongside other American children. That’s what we are being told. Not one of us here believes it. We just can’t think of what to say back. But suppose it were true — then I say, if we have to choose, ‘Let the bridges fall down.’ What kind of a town would we rather have 50 years from now? A place where nitwits go back and forth over good bridges? Or a town with brainy, well educated people capable of holding their own in the modern way of life? You know which one of those is really wanted by everyone of us here. I say, “Let the bridges fall down.”

Arlington built a new school and the tradition of Vermont’s commitment to education. The results are tangible. Vermont’s scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress continually rank among the top 10. Our state has observed a steady increase in high school graduation rates, to the point now where we have one of the highest graduation rates in the country (second or third highest). But anyone who was paying attention to demographics 10 years ago could see a storm coming. Along with preparing our students to adapt to the digital revolution and a global economy our schools are now faced with a dramatically changing demographic.

According to L.O. Picus and Associates in research done for Joint Fiscal Office in 2012, Vermont has maintained a continued commitment to education funding as measured through both the state’s relative tax effort (as a percentage of income), which is the highest in the nation, and the percentage of state resources devoted to K-12 schools (the 6th highest).

According to another report, conducted last year by Art Woolf and Dick Heaps of Northern Economic Consulting, Vermont’s overall per pupil spending was 20 percent above the national average 15 years ago; now it is between 50 and 70 percent above the average. The two consultants compared education spending and health care expenditures to median family income growth. While those two expenditures are going up dramatically, incomes are actually going down. According the the U.S. Census Bureau in 2013, when inflation was factored in, Vermonters are actually earning less than they did a decade earlier.

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Teachers here are paid below the national average (27th lowest in the country) but Vermont’s low student to teacher ratio (9.4 students per teacher) is now the lowest in the country. The national average is 16 to 1. Vermont’s student to administrator ratio is, likewise, far below the national average. While the number of students in our schools has dropped dramatically the number of teachers and administrators in Vermont schools has actually been increasing.

The issue of appropriate levels of spending on education is a debate without any answers. But the demographics are certain, and for the last 15 to 20 years they have been making Vermont’s stalwart devotion to education increasingly contentious. In Greensboro, where I live, residential property taxes for education are going up 13 percent this year alone.

In the last session our legislators grappled with ways to constrain those costs. The result was Act 46. Act 46 may offer some hope for moving in a positive direction. It creates sticks and carrots to persuade small school districts to merge and there are some obvious, but minimal savings: a single audit instead of multiple audits; one treasurer instead of multiple treasurers; flexibility in faculty allocations; and fewer contract negotiations. While those small steps may be helpful, they will not turn back the demographic tide.

Vermont has experienced the second greatest percentage decrease in student population over the last 10 years (18.1 percent) of any state in the entire country. Only North Dakota has had a greater decline. Vermont’s average school district size has dropped to 299 students — making the state’s school districts the smallest in the nation. If supervisory unions merge there could be more substantial savings in administrative overhead — especially using new technologies for bookkeeping, budgeting and payroll.

Act 46 does hold the potential for more than just the obvious minimal savings. Together with Act 77, it provides a window of opportunity for school districts to reinvent themselves. To do so school boards will be challenged to demonstrate the creative and entrepreneurial skills legislators and the Agency of Education are hoping Act 77 will help teach our students.

By creating bigger districts and more school choices through Act 46 and Act 77, creative school districts will inevitably start to market themselves, particularly to tuition students. Attracting students will be more competitive and ideas like theme schools and magnet schools — schools with an emphasis on the arts or sciences may finally begin to be considered. Schools could be focused on food and agriculture or environmental studies. They could partner with schools in other countries. There could be schools with an emphasis on being outdoors. The time to use our imaginations is now.

Vermont needs to do more. For one thing the financing formula needs to become simpler and more transparent so that the conversation on Town Meeting Day can focus on numbers all voters can understand and discuss. We need to know what we are voting on.

We also need to begin a conversation about administrative overhead. And we need to begin a conversation about ways to ensure that students with special needs can access adequate resources regardless of where they live in Vermont. One option that should be on the table is a voucher system that applies to special needs students. Like our juniors and seniors that can now choose dual enrollment and the early college program, our students with special needs should have more opportunities and more choices.

The Agency of Education recommends minimum course sizes across grade levels for four main learning categories: English, math, science and social studies. Up to eighth grade, the smallest class sizes should be 10 students at schools of 150 children or more; at schools with fewer students, classes should consist of no less than five children, the report says.

Small schools and small classes have been a cornerstone of educational quality in Vermont. Students at schools like Cabot and Craftsbury may not have a curriculum as comprehensive as schools like Essex and South Burlington but they have other advantages that are no less valuable. The individual attention, and everybody knowing everybody else, teachers and students alike, has a wealth of rewards socially and academically. Craftsbury Academy, for example, by every known standard, is one of the best K-12 schools, not only in Vermont, but in New England.

The forces of globalization, the digital revolution and Vermont’s demographics are conspiring to revolutionize our schools. We have a unique window of opportunity and we should seize it. Act 77 and Act 46 were good steps in the right direction, but they are still timid steps. Those laws have however given school boards an opportunity to take more initiative and to create more choices and more opportunities for students. We should take that initiative and we should resist the notion that a bigger school house is somehow better.