Two rare political events occurred simultaneously today in the library at Spaulding High School: Scott Milne held a news conference, and he unveiled a thoughtful, detailed policy initiative.
Yes, the campaign without a plan has finally come up with one — on education reform. The thesis statement: Vermont spends too much on K-12 education and not enough on higher education. The basic idea: foster efficiency by reorganizing the public school system, and invest the savings into a new program to provide every Vermont student with access to a free college education or vocational program. (The full plan is posted on his campaign website.)
It’s creative. It’s fresh. It’s downright audacious. It’s the kind of thinking that, to me, represents the best of moderate Republicanism: maximizing our investment in the public sector instead of mindlessly cutting. At the very least, it ought to generate some serious conversations about how we spend our education dollars.
There were, of course, spiders in the attic. The Milne plan on paper was seven single-spaced pages with plenty of detail (footnotes, even); but he was less than articulate in the give-and-take of a news conference. He abruptly shifted between explanations of his own plan and recycled attacks on Governor Shumlin. He made plenty of snide comments directed at the media, who were on relatively good behavior. (If he thinks we’re tough on him, he ought to attend a couple of the Governor’s news conferences.) And he didn’t have clear answers to a number of fairly simple questions.
But the biggest problem with today’s announcement was… today.
It’s October 15th.
The election is three days from yesterday.
And this is the first in a promised series of policy announcements. (A proposal for reinventing state government will come in about two weeks — within days of the election.) After a summer of no ideas, Milne is going to empty the truck in the campaign’s closing days.
If he’d put forward this idea six months ago, or even three, then he might have sparked a serious conversation on the issue and positioned himself as a viable moderate alternative to Shumlin.
That’s conventional thinking, of course, and Milne will tell you he’s running an insurgent campaign. He believes this is the perfect time to start launching his policy ideas.
Well, if he’s right, and every political observer and activist in the state is wrong, then Milne can celebrate his election by holding a good old harvest-time Crow Pie Dinner and invite all of us to dig in. I’ll be at the front of the line.
The broad outline of the Milne plan, entitled “Investing in Vermont’s Future”:
— His previously announced two-year cap on the statewide property tax, designed to force the Legislature to get serious about reform. Any shortfall in school funding caused by the cap would come out of the state’s General Fund. That, in turn, would be made whole through some combination of cuts in other areas and tax increases. Milne favors spending cuts, but he wants to work out the details with the Legislature.
— Universal tuition-free education from pre-K through four-year degree or vocational training for every Vermonter at vocational centers, colleges and universities in the state system.
— The money for free tuition would come from savings in K-12 spending. To realize this, Milne proposes a reorganization of the system into 15 Regional Education Administration Districts (READs). READs would have authority over budgets. There would be no statewide property tax; instead, tax payments go to the READs, which would each set district-wide per-pupil spending.
— READs would foster efficiency because voters would have a stronger connection between school budgets and their taxes. This would lead to lower budgets, leaner spending, and voluntary consolidation of smaller districts.
— The state would ensure compliance with the Brigham decision mandating educational equity, by providing supplemental funding for READs with low per-pupil spending.
— School choice would be gradually broadened. Eventually, every family could send their kids to any school within their READ. School choice would not include private schools.
— For every two years a student attends Vermont schools, s/he would get one year of free post-high school education at any of the state’s public colleges, universities, or technical schools.
— Existing private colleges could join the system, if they’re willing to give a tuition break in exchange for access to more Vermont students.
— The deal would not include any tuition for institutions outside Vermont.
Milne argues that the offer of free tuition would be a powerful draw for people to move into Vermont, thus fueling our economy and putting our finances on sounder footing.
I see some problems with the Milne plan, and I’m sure you do, too. He assumes that a primary cost driver in public schools is the supposed disconnect between voting for school budgets and the resulting tax bill. I’m not at all convinced that this is as big a factor as Republicans think it is.
He also assumes a pretty high degree of public engagement in the READs. I think that’s tremendously optimistic; most of us don’t have the time, or inclination, to get seriously engaged in that process.
Then there’s the problematic Brigham fix. If the state is the funder of last resort, then doesn’t that retain one of the weak points of the current system?
A question about the free tuition. Is the two-year requirement for a year of free tuition retroactive? If so, then you’d potentially have thousands of high school graduates expecting free tuition next fall. If not, and the clock starts with the passage of this plan, then the four-year free tuition offer wouldn’t go into effect until current fourth-graders are graduating from high school. (A current fifth-grader couldn’t qualify for more than three years tuition-free.)
Another quibble (but these kinds of quibbles often doom policy initiatives): If a student attended 12 years of Vermont school, graduated, and is now a freshman at UVM, would s/he retroactively qualify for free tuition? If so, then you’re blowing a fresh hole in state colleges’ budgets. If not, you’ll have a whole passel of pissed-off parents.
And finally, in an effort to avoid any sort of state-mandated cuts, Milne puts an awful lot of faith in voluntary compliance. He criticizes Governor Shumlin for putting the onus on local voters and school boards; but his plan would force the voters and the READs to make some really tough choices, because his goal is to bring per-pupil spending from its current $17,500 to somewhere around the national average of $12,000.
That’s roughly a 30% cut. He sees room for savings in the alleged overstaffing of public schools, and (without saying so directly) in the extra costs of small school districts. Still, that’s a whacking great number, and it’s hard to imagine anything like that number surviving the policymaking process.
Still, it’s an idea. It’s a plan. I give Milne full credit for putting it together, and for finally giving his campaign a raison d’etre beyond “I’m Not Shumlin.”
I look forward to more of his plans. I just wish this had happened a long time ago.