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.