Category Archives: Education

Approved Independent Schools Are Under-Regulated and Growing

The High Castle Burr and Burton Academy

State Auditor Doug Hoffer recently issued the second of two performance audits on Vermont’s approved independent schools. You may have missed it because it was virtually ignored by the #vtpoli media. (Both reports can be accessed here.)

The lack of coverage deserves a post of its own. For now, let’s get to the meat of Hoffer’s work. He didn’t find any smoking guns, but he did identify a striking trend and some definite lapses in oversight by the state. It’s a dangerous combination, especially with so many indy-related people on the state board of education.

Hoffer’s first report focused on an educational double standard: the rules for public schools and AIS’s are quite different, and favor the latter. The high points:

  • The Education Secretary is required in state law to ensure that public schools comply with the law. There is no such provision for AIS’s.
  • Public schools must follow public-records and open-meetings laws, ensuring a measure of transparency and accountability. The AIS’s do not.
  • Educational quality standards are much looser for AIS’s than for public schools.
  • Public schoolteachers must be licensed by the state. Not so for AIS’s.

There’s more, but that gives you the general idea that the indies can cut lots and lots of corners, and are less accountable for how they spend Education Fund money.

Now we get to Hoffer’s second report, which reveals that the AIS’s are taking a larger and larger share of K-12 dollars. Details after the jump.

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Another BLM Brouhaha, This Time in Essex

Hey, remember when a couple of QAnon-ish Trumpers ran for Barre City Council because they were upset over the flying of the “Black Lives Matter” flag? Well, we got us another BLM hater.

Meet Liz Cady, candidate for Essex Westford School Board (election 4/13). Her brand of fringe politics is more subtle than the Barre Boys, but it’s pretty out there. Since the Essex Reporter’s bland ‘n boring candidate profile didn’t dig into her anti-BLM advocacy, it falls to this here blog to fill the gap.

Cady is running against two-term incumbent Liz Subin. And if you carefully read the above campaign mailer, you’ll see quite a few plausibly deniable conservative dog whistles. But let’s get to a couple of telling details first.

Cady doesn’t say so on the flyer, but both of her children are in private school. She tries to elide this inconvenient fact on the flip side of her mailer, which starts “Like all parents, I want my two school-age children to receive the best education possible.”

She’s a district resident and (presumably) a taxpayer, so there’s nothing wrong with her running for school board. But if I were a district voter, I’d think twice about electing someone who has pulled her kids out of the schools.

But the bigger deal is her antipathy toward Black Lives Matter. Last year, after more than 100 students signed a petition to fly the BLM flag, the school board voted to do so. Last September, Cady spoke to the school board during public comment time and unleashed an often ungrammatical screed that, I am not kidding, called BLM a carbon copy of the Nazi movement. (Meeting is archived online; her comments start at about the 18:50 mark.)

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Gloves Off, Let’s Go

Says here Vermont’s public sector unions are feeling anxious about closed-door talks on how to fix their pension plans. Can’t say I blame them. The 2021 session is more than halfway done, Speaker Jill Krowinski is determined to get something done by then, and there’s been not a peep about what a fix might look like. And since Treasurer Beth Pearce has outlined exactly how drastically pensions might change, the teachers’ and state employees’ union have every right to be concerned.

And this is the time to show their concern through hardball, sharp-elbow politics. Give ’em hell. Threaten a cutoff of union support for any lawmaker who supports a major cut in pension benefits or a major increase in employee pay-in. Get in there and throw some elbows.

Mind you, I’m not talking right and wrong here. I’m talking the timely application of leverage.

The VSEA and VT-NEA are two of the most powerful forces in the Vermont Democratic Party. They provide financial support, volunteers, and lots of voters. They have earned a great deal of influence in party circles. That influence should be brought to bear, right now if not sooner.

You’d think this wouldn’t be necessary. You’d think the Legislature’s Demo/Prog majority would be working with the unions to resolve this crisis. But union lobbyists say otherwise.

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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.

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Being a Senator: A Lesson in Two Parts

2021 is a singularly difficult year to be a first-term lawmaker. You can’t get a feel of the place. You can’t have the casual conversations that make life easier. You can’t grab a colleague for a brief word of explanation about something that’s hard to understand.

That said, I have to note a couple of troubling passages in the maiden voyage of Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden. On two separate occasions last month, he acted less like a senator than like a state representative from a specific community. In hearings on Burlington-area transportation improvements and school funding, he spoke entirely on behalf of his hometown, South Burlington.

On February 19, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing (video available here) on potential improvements to I-89 in the Burlington area. Nothing’s happening imminently; the committee and VTrans are looking a few decades into the future, assessing options for handling traffic flows that will almost certainly increase from the already heavy volumes of today.

The committee and a VTrans official discussed options for making the Burlington area interchanges work better. One of the options is a new exit on I-89 at US-116/Hinesburg Road. This hypothetical Exit 12-B would provide a direct pipeline into South Burlington.

Well, Chittenden gave a strong (and rather parochial) endorsement to the 12-B idea.

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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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