The Governor Puts His Thumb on the Education Scale

The news may be official by the time you read this post, but I’ve gotten word that Gov. Phil Scott has chosen two new members of the State Board of Education. The last two Peter Shumlin appointees on the 10-member board, Peter Peltz and William Mathis, have seen their terms come to an end. Yep, the entire board is now made up of Phil Scott appointees.

This ought to concern anyone interested in the health of the public school system. Since his initial run for governor in 2016, Scott has been nosing around some pretty big education reforms. He’s talked up a single statewide school district, which would include a statewide school voucher system. Such a system would drain resources from the public schools. Scott has also consistently voiced support for a “cradle to career” approach to education, which would likely mean giving some Ed Fund dollars to child care, early education, and secondary education.

Also looming overhead are the legal challenges to Vermont’s ban on paying tuition to religious schools. Given the compensation of the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s likely that Vermont will have to accommodate an unfriendly ruling sometime soon. The easiest way around these lawsuits is to stop paying tuition to any non-public school, including the approved independent schools like the St. Johnsbury Academy and the Burr and Burton Academy. That’s politically unlikely, but the composition of the State Board of Education makes it even less likely.

Lovett was the headmaster of St. Johnsbury Academy until last June, when he stepped down after 19 years on the job. His appointment would mean that fully half of the board, and half of its voting members, have strong connections to approved independent schools.

Jepson is executive director of Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region. (The clumsily-named C&ED was born of a merger between the Rutland Chamber of Commerce and the Rutland Economic Development Corporation.) Before that, Jepson was head of the Career & Technical Teacher Education Program at Vermont Technical College.

So, two more people with no particular tie to the public education system are joining the body that oversees the public education system.

Lovett is one more trustee with ties to approved independent schools, joining former Burr and Burton Academy board member Oliver Olsen, WInhall School Board chair Jennifer Samuelson (her district does not operate its own schools; its students attend Burr and Burton), and former St. Johnsbury Academy staffer Jenna O’Farrell. That’s four seats on a Board with eight voting members.

Oh, and nonvoting Board member and Education Secretary Dan French is from Manchester Center and spent nine years as superintendent of the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union, which sends quite a few students to Burr and Burton. So that’s five out of 10 trustees who are indy-friendly.

The new appointees will also result in a significant geographic imbalance on the Board. Two trustees hail from Chittenden County: Kim Gleason of Essex and student representative Sabina Brochu of Williston. No trustees hail from central Vermont.

Meanwhile, the five trustees with independent-school ties are all from the St. Johnsbury and Manchester areas, neither of which is exactly a population hub. And Jepson is from right up the road in Rutland. There’s no one from central Vermont, no one from Burlington, and no one from southeast Vermont. I can think of only one explanation for that odd geographic distribution: The administration plans to push the system in the direction of greater choice — to the detriment of the public schools.

I hope the state Senate will take its authority over the appointments seriously and ask some probing questions. I kinda doubt that will happen; the internal communication I received about the Lovett and Jepson appointees includes the line “We look forward to welcoming Tom and Lyle to the State Board at our meeting, tomorrow morning.” That’s Thursday morning. The appointments were not on the Senate’s calendar for today, Wednesday.

Advise and consent, anyone?

One more thing. The Board is in the process of rewriting Rule 2200, which covers various aspects of the state’s relationship with approved independent schools. This includes whether those schools have to accept special needs students, and if they do, how they are reimbursed for the costs. With half the Board of Education coming from an independent school perspective, it seems certain that the new rule will be written with the interests of independent schools in mind.

And in case you think I’m being overly cynical, I’ll point out that two of the three members of the subcommittee drafting the new rules are Oliver Olsen and Jennifer Samuelson, who both have strong ties to independent schools.

10 thoughts on “The Governor Puts His Thumb on the Education Scale

  1. H. Jay Eshelman

    The usual ‘strawman’ has been raised yet again – that a voucher ‘system would drain resources from the public schools.’

    It’s always about the ‘public schools’. It’s never about the children or their parents or the various other independent alternatives to the public school monopoly, including homeschooling, independent schools and, yes, religious schools.

    Why are the ‘public schools’ always the holy grail?

    Because special interest groups, like the teacher’s unions, various other related staff organizations, the Principals Association, the Superintendents Association, the Vermont School Board Association, and myriad social service organizations, all meet at the great public education watering hole to stalk their prey.

    Meanwhile, Vermont spends as much to educate a first grader as it costs to send a student to Castleton University for a full year’s college course load, “including tuition, student association fee, student resources fee, and room and board (and for new students, the new student registration/orientation fee)”.

    What’s up with that? And, what are the outcomes for Vermont’s generous education funding to its ‘public schools’?

    Well, for starters, academic test scores for Vermont’s K thru 12 students tend to decline the longer the student attends the public school system. In fact, while 90% of Vermont students graduate from high school, about half fail to achieve minimum grade level proficiencies in Math, English and Science, and graduate anyway. Only 40 % of Vermont’s public school graduates attend college. And of those who do, half again require remedial instruction before taking their college level courses. And half of those who make it through five years of college, never graduate.

    Why does this happen, you ask? Well, consider guys like the aforementioned William Mathis, who served for years as the chair of the Vermont State Board of Education legislative committee. Mathis also moonlights as the Director of the Colorado based National Education Policy Center, an education special interest group, funded in large part by the teacher’s unions. As the adolescent saying goes – ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’.

    My question is, why does John Walters advocate for this dystopian Vermont public K-12 education system? Why does he oppose Vermont’s tuition vouchers, that allow parents to choose the education programs they believe best meet the needs of their children? Why does it matter where parents choose to send their children, be it to public schools, to independent schools, to independent religious schools, or to hybrid homeschooling programs?

    I challenge Mr. Walters to explain himself to me. I’m a Vermont parent of children who attended our public school system, children who also took advantage of Vermont’s Tuition Voucher program to attend independent schools. I’m a former Vermont Public School Board Director, a former Workforce Investment Board member acting as liaison between schools and businesses. And I’m an employer who, for 50 years has hired many of Vermont’s highs school graduates. I have some expertise in this subject, Mr. Walters, and look forward to debating the issues with you.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      Short answer: I see the public schools as a tremendous force for the common good. Any sort of choice program is almost certainly going to advantage the advantaged, and any diminution of the public schools would disproportionately harm the disadvantaged. The public schools are an investment in educating every kid in the state, which is a goal we should all be willing to contribute to. Not to say there aren’t questions about how the schools function, but the answer isn’t to apply leeches.

      Reply
      1. H. Jay Eshelman

        Re: “I see the public schools as a tremendous force for the common good.”
        Are independent schools not a ‘tremendous force for the common good… when chosen by parents who believe they provide the best education for their children, especially given the commonality of dysfunctional outcomes realized with a one-size-fits all public-school education? With friends like the public-school monopoly, who needs enemies?

        Re: “Any sort of choice program is almost certainly going to advantage the advantaged…”
        Indeed. School Choice increases the advantages for everyone. After all, the ‘disadvantaged’ have more options too, as the ‘advantaged’ now do, when a tuition voucher is available to everyone? Conversely, the so-called ‘disadvantaged’ are now held hostage to their disadvantages without School Choice.

        Re: “….and any diminution of the public schools would disproportionately harm the disadvantaged.”
        This is a false dichotomy. First, you incorrectly assume School Choice will have a diminutive effect on public schools. Second, you mistakenly assume any diminution of the public schools will create a derogatory effect. Thirdly, with School Choice, the so-called ‘disadvantaged’ are no longer disadvantaged in either case.

        Re: “The public schools are an investment in educating every kid in the state, …”
        So too are tuition vouchers, especially given the increase in investment options for ‘every kid’.

        Re: “…which is a goal we should all be willing to contribute to.”
        I agree, and am not only ‘willing to contribute’, I’m forced to contribute, as are all taxpayers. The unintended consequence of mandatory contributions to a public-school monopoly, however, is that the contribution consumes the limited disposable income of the disadvantaged you mentioned above, further limiting the options they may otherwise have chosen.

        Re: “Not to say there aren’t questions about how the schools function, but the answer isn’t to apply leeches.”
        Ah ha, the inevitable pejorative surfaces as logic fails to hold muster. Given the ‘questionable function’ (a euphemism to be sure) of the public-school monopoly, is it not lecherous? After all, the poor performance of the public-school monopoly is anything but questionable.

    1. H. Jay Eshelman

      I tend to agree that the Scott appointments are an improvement. But the proof of excellence will be in the pudding.

      Reply
  2. Walter Carpenter

    “The usual ‘strawman’ has been raised yet again – that a voucher ‘system would drain resources from the public schools.’”

    That’s been the whole point of the voucher idea all along — to drain resources from public schools to advantage the advantaged even more, and make the public schools into hellholes. That way you can end public schools and that’s the point of it.

    Reply
    1. H. Jay Eshelman

      If public schools are as good as you apparently believe them to be, why would anyone use their voucher to attend anything other than a public school? Unless, of course, the public schools are already the ‘hellholes’ you think they will become.

      Reply
      1. Walter Carpenter

        “If public schools are as good as you apparently believe them to be, why would anyone use their voucher to attend anything other than a public school?”

        Once again, the voucher system is the whole point. Once upon a time there was no such thing as these “vouchers,” but conservatives made up this crisis to starve and undermine the public school system itself. Then, of course, with the vouchers that have come into vogue the children of the very wealthy also would not have to mix with the lesser vermin like the rest of us and still have us pay for it in the meantime.

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