Category Archives: Education

Another Fine School Funding Mess

Hey folks, it’s time for another round of every lawmaker’s least favorite game: Reforming the state’s public school funding system!

This time, lawmakers are considering a 2019 UVM report on “pupil weighting.” Some students tend to cost more to educate, including special needs kids, New Americans and people living in poverty. Vermont weights the pupil count so school funding better reflects the needs of a district’s students. But the 2019 report concluded that Vermont’s current pupil weighting system is so off-kilter that it’s vulnerable to a legal challenge a la the Brigham decision.

(For those just joining us, in 1997 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state is responsible for providing substantially equal educational opportunity to all students. In response, the Legislature adopted Act 60, which established funding and pupil-weighting systems designed to comply with the ruling. That weighting system is still with us today.)

And if there’s anything lawmakers like less than making a tough decision, it’s letting the courts make that decision.

And for his part, Education Secretary Dan French is trying to keep himself and his agency out of the process as much as possible.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Education and Finance Committees held a joint hearing to take testimony on S.13 — a bill that would require the Education Agency to devise a plan for implementing the report’s recommendations. There was universal agreement that the state needs to do something to make pupil weighting more equitable. And that’s where the universal agreement ended.

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A Plan for Thinking About Creating a Process for Possibly Doing Something Years From Now

(Not Exactly As Illustrated.)

Vermont’s public schools aren’t quite this bad, but many districts are burdened by years of deferred maintenance and replacement. The situation has gotten worse in the last decade-plus. And it won’t get better anytime soon. And that’s assuming that the Legislature finally takes action on a bill that would lay the foundation for maybe starting to address the problem a few years from now.

The background: Until 2007, the state of Vermont devoted roughly one-third of its capital budget to public school projects. That year, according to the bill’s text, the Legislature “suspended state aid for school construction in order to permit the Secretary of Education and the Commissioner of Finance and Management to recommend a sustainable plan for state aid for school construction.”

Since then, crickets. And a steadily growing list of needs, and many students learning in unsafe conditions. (See: Burlington High School’s precipitate relocation to the former Macy’s Department Store.) To again quote the bill, “the backlog… has resulted in unsafe and unhealthy learning environments and disparities in the quality of education between wealthier communities and communities in need across the state.”

Which, if unaddressed, could spark a lawsuit invoking the precedent of the Brigham decision. Because, duhh, affluent districts can afford to undertake capital projects while poorer districts are left to hang. Take one of those unfortunates, add an opportunistic (or idealistic, if you prefer) lawyer, and the state finds itself in court. In the uncomfortable position of defending inequity.

Two House committees, Education and Corrections/Institutions, have been trying for three years to identify a solution. Which would either involve (1) cutting deeply into the state’s capital budget or (2) finding a substantial pot of money. Last year they started a bill through the Legislature, but it stalled out because of the onset of Covid-19.

So it’s back this year. Bill 21-0782 is a “committee bill” being crafted by House Education, current text available here.

To be clear, the bill doesn’t invest any funds in school construction. No, we have to start these things very small and roll them out slowly.

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The Legal Clusterf* Around Public Dollars for Religious Schools

You know you’re onto a hot mess when, in the course of a one-hour hearing, a situation is described as “a potential landmine of constitutional issues” and a passage between Scylla and Charybdis, and a leading Constitutional scholar can’t even guess where the courts are going on the issue.

Such was the state of affairs before the Senate Education Committee Wednesday afternoon. The five solons took testimony on how, or whether, the state must pay tuition to religious schools. The short answer is “yes,” under certain circumstances. The long answer is, “yes,” but exactly how we should do it is an impenetrable thicket of non-ambiguous court decisions and costly legal maneuvers.

And if you don’t, under any circumstances, want your tax dollars going to, say, The Lord’s Anti-Semitic Academy Of Creationist Heteronormativity, well, you’re shit out of luck.

The “credit” for this morass can be awarded to the John Roberts Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision (along ideological lines) in the 2019 case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the high court ruled that the state of Montana could not exclude religious schools from a program that doled out tax credit-funded scholarships for schoolkids.

Vermont doesn’t have a program like that, but if a community chooses not to operate public schools, the state pays tuition for the town’s kids to attend one of a handful of approved private schools, like St. Johnsbury Academy and Burr and Burton Academy. If you apply the Espinoza standard to Vermont, the state must throw the program’s doors open to any qualified private school, religious or not. And “approved” can’t be decided on the increasingly frayed principle of church/state separation.

“The Supreme Court has been moving the goalpost in favor of funding religious institutions,” said Vermont Law School Professor Peter Teachout, the Legislature’s go-to guy for thorny constitutional issues.

After the jump: Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

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The Ghost of Jeb Spaulding Returns

Somewhere, Jeb Spaulding is saying “I told you so.”

The former chancellor of the Vermont State College System fell on his professional sword last spring by unveiling a plan to decimate VSCS in order to save it. In the ensuing uproar, he resigned.

Well, the new leadership has totted up the cost of saving the system — and it’s one hell of a price tag. On Tuesday, Spaulding’s successor Sophie Zdatny (pronounced just like it’s spelled) told the House Appropriations Committee that the state needs to pour another $203 million into the system over the next six fiscal years.

That’s on top of VSCS’ base appropriation of $30.5 million a year.

And that’s in addition to round after round of projected cost-cutting that would mean significant reductions at all VSCS campuses.

None of which would begin to address the system’s $150 million in deferred maintenance. Well, if VSCS sells or demolishes buildings in the downsizing process, that cost would go down somewhat.

All of this is necessary, Zdatny said, to return the system to fiscal sustainability. (Her presentation can be downloaded from the committee’s website.)

There’s one significant difference between Zdatny’s plan and Spaulding’s. The latter called for the closure of both Northern Vermont University campuses plus the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College. Zdatny would keep all the system’s campuses open — but with a substantially reduced footprint at each location.

In order to follow through on the plan, the system would need $51 million on top of the $30.5 million base for fiscal year 2022. The additional need would decrease over time, from $51M in FY22 to $18M in FY27. After that, VSCS could maintain operations on the $30.5 million base.

How? By slashing $5 million a year off expenses in each of the next six years.

Seems as though Jeb had a point after all.

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Fixing the State College System Will Be a Big Heavy Lift

Room rater! Best: Campion, okay background but great lighting. Honorable mention: Helen Mango; the pot lights give a delightful UFO vibe. Worst: Tie between Thomas “Total Eclipse Of The” Chittenden and Andrew “Blank Slate” Perchlik. C’mon, buy a poster or something!

Last year, the Vermont Legislature put off many unpleasant decisions by creating study committees. Well, one of them has come back to roost, and it brings a passel of bad news.

I’m talking about the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont, because the longer the name, the better the work product. The SCFHEV was tasked with studying the money-starved Vermont State College System and charting a path to sustainability. It issued a preliminary report in early December. That document was presented to the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon. (The preliminary report can be downloaded from Senate Ed’s website. The panel’s final report will come out in April, with some changes likely and a lot more detail assured.)

The high points, if that’s what they are: The system needs dramatic restructuring to cut costs; even so it needs a much larger ongoing commitment from state government; and it also has to cut tuition rates, which are staggeringly high compared to public institutions in other states.

Well, that’s quite a lot.

The path ahead is long and arduous. It will involve multiple committees in the House and Senate, discussion of politically unpopular cutbacks, a search for funding at a time when demands for state money are everywhere, and scrounging for legislative time in what’s likely to be the most demanding session in years. Like I said, a big heavy lift.

Besides that, hey, things are going great.

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Ex-Politician Undertakes Research Project; Media Outlet Swoons

Olsen’s treasure trove. (Not Exactly As Illustrated)

Last week, VTDigger posted a curiously lopsided story that trumpeted the intention of former state lawmaker Oliver Olsen to “audit the auditor.”

That would be state auditor Doug Hoffer, who seems to have gotten deeply under Olsen’s skin. The Digger piece went on and on about Olsen’s dim view of Hoffer’s work, cited the views of lawmakers with similar misgivings, and… um… barely quoted Hoffer at all. Nor did it include comments from the many lawmakers who have think highly of Hoffer. It kind of reads like a hit job.

There are two quotations from Hoffer, both apparently taken from emails. In fact, I asked Hoffer if he’d been interviewed by the reporter. “We had no phone conversations at all,” he said. “I had no chance to respond to the allegations [by Olsen].”

Well, that’s Journalism 101, isn’t it? A former editor of mine used to hammer repeatedly on the obligation of reporters to talk to everyone mentioned in a story. That doesn’t seem to be the standard at Digger.

So the article was a little malpractice-y. What about the substance?

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Are VT’s “Approved Independent Schools” Too Independent?

Scrappy little independent, there.

As is his wont, State Auditor Doug Hoffer is questioning conventional wisdom. And it’ll probably win him as many popularity points as it usually does.

This week, Hoffer released a performance audit of Vermont’s “approved independent schools,” as they like to call themselves. (Heaven forbid you should call them “private schools,” which is what they are.) What he found, in the words of his report’s title, is that these schools “are not subject to most of the statutes and rules that govern public schools.”

These are private schools that have been approved by the state Board of Education to receive public tuition dollars. They are located in rural areas where it might not be practical for each district to serve its entire K-12 population. That may be enough of a public service to compensate for the fact that they are taking students and dollars away from the public school system.

But perhaps, if they’re accepting tens of millions in public funding every year, they should be held to the same standards as public schools.

And as Hoffer points out, they are decidedly not. This allows them to cut corners in ways that public schools cannot, and shields them from the kind of rigorous oversight that public schools are subject to from state officials and district voters.

After the jump: Details and conclusions.

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A Failure With Many Fathers

Timing, Mr. President.

Things have pretty much gone to shit at the University of Vermont. The latest installment features the announcement of a plan to take a meataxe to humanities instruction. A total of 24 academic programs are to be cut, totaling roughly one-fifth of the College of Arts and Sciences’ course offerings. The administration thoughtfully unveiled the plan via mass email because that’s the way Ebenezer Scrooge would have done it if he’d had email, right?

That very same day, after metaphorically turning out the lights in many a campus precinct, UVM President Suresh Garimella posted the cheery tweet reproduced above. Tone-deaf much?

The plan has not been received well, to say the least. The UVM-related Twitterverse has been ablaze with recriminations. Nearly 2,000 people have signed an online petition to reverse the cuts. Campus reaction has been muted because, well, the students have been sent home and teaching is being done online.

Hard to put together a protest under those conditions.

UVM administration has often seemed out of touch and, shall we say, uncollaboriative in management style. Garimella, an engineer by trade, has been in office for less than two years, and his hiring was seen by many as signaling a turn away from the humanities. This year has seen contract talks with the faculty union go nowhere. The administration was forced to rescind planned cuts in lecturers and adjunct faculty after it was met with an uproar.

So, you’re expecting me to slag the top brass and brand Garimella as an enemy of the humanities, right?

You’d be wrong. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

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Mr. Milne’s Recycling Bin

Scott Milne tried to make up for his two previous statewide campaigns, which were remarkably issue-free, by releasing a lavishly illustrated and ridiculously detailed 60-point policy agenda this week.

His Tuesday announcement got lost in what turned out to be a very big news day, including Dr. Anthony Fauci’s guest appearance at Gov. Phil Scott’s Covid-19 briefing and Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

I felt a little sorry for Milne at the time. But having taken a dip in his mile-wide-but-inch-deep policy pool, I decided it’s probably better for him that this stale batch of recycled ideas didn’t attract much notice. The package is dominated by conventional Republican tropes, failed Scott administration proposals, and plenty of filler to make the agenda seem more impressive than it is. You’d think a guy who’s reinvented himself as an edgy cryptocurrency investor would have some fresh ideas to contribute.

What’s even worse is that Milne completely fails to address some of our most critical challenges. There’s nothing about our raging opioid crisis, not a mention of racism, justice, policing or corrections, and barely a nod to climate change.

Since Milne’s document is searchable, we can quantify that. “Opiates” and “racism” are nowhere to be found. The word “climate” occurs precisely once in the 33-page document. And that’s a reference to Vermont’s economic climate.

After the jump: YOU get a tax incentive! And YOU get a tax incentive! EVERYBODY gets a tax incentive!!!

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Why is Phil Scott’s Education Secretary Boosting Right-Wing Propaganda?

Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French posted this tweet, calling attention to a new free online American History text. What he doesn’t say is that this “Free Online U.S. History Resource” came out of the Koch brothers’ network of conservative/free market nonprofit organizations. And the history lessons on offer are slanted in favor of an originalist, American exceptionalist, small-government view of things. They also present a sugar-coated version of the story of slavery and race relations in America. Resources on abortion, health care, firearms, marriage equality and other issues are strongly tilted toward the right. The Zinn Education Project:

In its materials for teachers and students, the Bill of Rights Institute cherry-picks the Constitution, history, and current events to hammer home its libertarian message that the owners of private property should be free to manage their wealth as they see fit. As one Bill of Rights lesson insists, “The Founders considered industry and property rights critical to the happiness of society.”

French’s tweet appeared on his personal account and does not necessarily reflect his professional views — but he identifies himself in his Twitter bio as Education Secretary and this tweet was published at 10:09 a.m. on Tuesday, when he was presumably at work. The lines get blurry real quick. The tweet can certainly be viewed as an endorsement from the state’s top educator, which is a pretty powerful thing.

The Bill of Rights Institute, which “publishes” the material, is taking advantage of the fact that many public schools are under-resourced. The offering of free texts can seem like a godsend to strapped districts — and low-income students as well. On its own website, it boasts of having reached “more than 5 million students and over 50,000 teachers.”

It’s possible that French is ignorant of the origin and true purpose of the Institute. As is common practice in the Koch empire, its name and branding are designed to be inoffensive. I mean, who can be against the Bill of Rights? But as an educational professional whose word carries weight, French ought to know what he’s talking about before he hits “send.” If he doesn’t, he hasn’t done his, ahem, homework. And he shouldn’t be giving his imprimatur to ideologically biased educational materials.