Tag Archives: Dan French

The Autumn of Phil’s Discontent

Is this the worst moment in Gov. Phil Scott’s nearly five years in office? I’d have to say yes. Now, there haven’t been that many bad moments. Maybe the time he vetoed not one but two state budgets and nearly triggered a government shutdown. But that turned out to be a blip on the radar.

This? This could be the first time he suffers real political damage. He’s taking simultaneous hits on three fronts: The continuing Covid surge, his administration’s erratic Covid policy in the schools, and yet another retreat on the emergency housing program. In all three cases, he looks less like a compassionate moderate and more like a stubborn conservative.

I’m not saying he’s vulnerable in 2022. He isn’t yet, but the bloom is coming off the rose.

He’s had to abandon his optimism on the Delta variant and admit he doesn’t know what’s happening. Our seven-day rolling average of new cases is still near record highs, and hospitalizations, deaths, and test positivity rate are all distressingly high. Still, Scott continues to signal no change in policy. The longer he does so, the more embarrassing his inevitable comedown will be. Unless he gets lucky and the Delta variant goes away.

The school situation is not getting better anytime soon. The “test to stay” program is still being rolled out more than six weeks into the school year. The administration has touted the program’s success in Massachusetts, but there’s a big difference. In Massachusetts, the program was implemented in late July. There was time for planning and adjustment before the doors opened to students. Up here, Education Secretary Dan French is like an auto mechanic working on a car while it’s being driven.

Actually, since he hasn’t offered any resources to schools, it’s more like he’s in the passenger seat telling the driver to work on the engine while the car is in motion.

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Scott to Vermont: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

After weeks of staunchly denying that there was a monster in the attic, the tactic is finally becoming untenable. The pounding, stomping and grunting is just too loud to ignore. So now we’ve switched to “Yes, there’s a monster and we don’t know what his intentions are, but we think it will go away on its own. No need to do anything.”

Yeah, the Scott administration’s carefully posed optimism was on short supply in the latest gubernatorial Covid briefing. After several days of case counts between 200 and 300, a rising test positivity rate, dozens of hospitalizations and a high death count, Gov. Phil Scott and his top officials have retreated from their Happy Place.

Still, despite the bad numbers and failed projections, he still insists that there’s no need for any additional action. It’s all about the vaccine, baby. Get your shots and you’ll be fine.

Well, maybe. At least you’ll be less likely to end up in a hospital or a grave.

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Dan French, Purposeful Cipher

Education Secretary Dan French is not the most inspiring sort of leader. If anything, he’s kind of just there. His facial expression and vocal affect are persistently flat. He tends to say nothing with a maximum amount of verbal camouflage. When he’s reading a prepared statement, his eyes rarely stray from the page. And when they do stray, it’s a brief upward glance and then right back down.

Which probably makes him the perfect education secretary for Gov. Phil Scott, who’s also fond of laying down large swaths of verbal camouflage and, well, doesn’t seem to care that much about the public schools except they should somehow operate more cheaply.

In the past couple weeks, French’s persona has not served him well in the public sphere. Although again, his boss is probably just fine with his performance.

At the October 5 Covid briefing, French mentioned in passing that he’d made a visit to the Canaan school district the previous day. It only occurred to me later that (a) Canaan is the only district in Vermont without a mask mandate and (b) Canaan is French’s old stomping grounds. It was there he rose from teacher to superintendent before moving on to bigger things.

That Canaan meeting was apparently not recorded. Or if it was, the recording has not been made available. That’s a shame, because I’d really like to know what he said about the advisability of masking.

Especially since, as someone who viewed the meeting told me, French did not wear a mask himself.

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Gov Sends Thoughts, Prayers to Public Schools

“It’s unfortunate, the number of deaths,” he said. Yes, he did.

If the Scott administration were devising a pandemic strategy meant to put maximum pressure on our schools, it couldn’t do much better than this. At his weekly Covid presser, Gov. Phil Scott made it clear that he expects school officials to do everything they can to keep kids in the classroom, but they’re on their own for staffing an ever-evolving, incomplete regimen of Covid testing.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

After brief statements from Scott and others, including the customary parade of carefully curated statistics from Finance Commissioner and CovidMeister Michael Pieciak, Education Secretary Dan French took to the podium and made it clear that the administration expected school systems to “maximize in-person learning” by any means necessary. His latest brainfart, “test to stay,” is a regimen of testing done at the beginning of the school day. Students who test negative can stay in class.

This policy, which is still being rolled out more than a month into the school year, puts the onus on school staff to conduct quick tests first thing in the morning. As for how the understaffed and overstressed schools should handle the additional work, French said, “I expect schools will add staff or reassign existing staff.”

But don’t think the state will kick in a single damn dime to cover the cost. French helpfully suggested that the schools use federal Covid relief funds to pay the freight. “Funding shouldn’t be the problem,” he said. I wonder how many districts have gobs of uncommitted federal dollars sloshing around right now.

But wait, it gets worse!

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Pay No Attention to the Pandemic Behind the Curtain

Wow. Gov. Phil Scott’s weekly press briefing was a nonstop festival of blame-shifting, convenient rationalization and, well, telling us a shit sandwich is prime roast beef.

Scott took the podium amid a blizzard of bad news — high case counts beyond his administration’s projections, unclear forecasts of Covid’s near future, high numbers of hospitalizations, inadequate contact tracing, and outbreaks of cases in public schools. He had explanations for all of it, few of them convincing.

He began by doubling down on his policy of encouraging vaccinations and little else. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” he said, pointing to numbers that show the vast majority of severe cases are among the unjabbed. True enough, but just because the odds are better for the vaccinated doesn’t mean the risk is acceptable.

Scott’s message: The blame shouldn’t fall to administration policy, it’s with the stubbornly unvaccinated. If you all would just get your shots, everything would be peachy. There’s truth in that, but he’s doing nothing to get more people vaccinated besides the same old earnest advice. IF he’s putting all his chips on vaccination, he might want to enact policies that incentivize vaccination and disincentivize stubborn resistance.

Scott again insisted that any tougher measures would require a state of emergency, which he again refused to consider. This, despite the fact that rates of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are equal to or greater than levels last seen in the winter of 2021 — when Scott was happy to continue a state of emergency.

He also dipped a toe into the murky waters of surrender. “Covid-19, like the flu, is going to be here for a while,” he said, ignoring the fact that Covid-19 is far more dangerous than your average flu. Unless he meant the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918.

After the jump: Please ignore the facts.

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The Camel’s Nose

That tent feels a lot less roomy now, doesn’t it?

Here’s the problem with “school choice.” It siphons money away from the public school system, which is a bedrock of community life. America’s commitment to providing an education to every child is one of the greatest expressions of our ideals.

When you start opening the to school choice, the money can seem insignificant — like that camel’s nose in your tent. But sooner or later, other parts of the camel will join the party. Eventually, you’ll find yourself outside your tent looking in.

Case in point from across the river: New Hampshire’s new “education freedom accounts” program. It’s billed as a way to help lower-class families send their kids to private school. When it was proposed, Education Commissioner (and failed gubernatorial candidate) Frank Edelblut told state lawmakers the cost of the program would be minimal. He estimated that less than three dozen students would take part. The Legislature swallowed it whole, budgeting $129,000 for the first year of the program.

Just a little nose. Nothing to worry about.

Well, that was obvious bullshit. I mean, if the new program would only attract a handful of participants, why even have the program in the first place? The implementation and management costs would be way out of proportion.

Turns out that Edelblut was either lying through his teeth or dead wrong. The number of participating families in the program’s first year will be north of 1,000, perhaps as high as 1,500. That means the “education freedom” program will cost the state, not $129,000, but as much as $7 million.

As the head of the New Hampshire NEA noted, if a public school system committed that kind of fiscal miscalculation, heads would roll. Edelblut’s is still firmly attached.

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Dan French Says the Quiet Part Out Loud

The Education Agency’s proposed new logo (not exactly as illustrated)

Vermont’s education secretary let the cat out of the regulatory bag on Wednesday. He acknowledged that state regulation of approved independent schools is, as Willy Shakes put it, “more honored in the breach than the observance.”

Dan French was speaking to the state board of education, a body not known for an aggressive attitude toward the AIS’s. But this time, they’d had it up to here.

VTDigger’s Lola Duffort reported on French’s testimony, casting it primarily in terms of the troubled Kurn Hattin Homes for Children. Kurn Hattin gave up its license to operate a residential treatment program in the face of enforcement action by the Department of Children and Families (the department cited a pervasive culture of abuse) — and yet, the Ed Agency rubber-stamped Kurn Hattin’s status as an approved independent school.

Well, on Wednesday we found out how the agency arrived at that curious conclusion. And it ought to send shivers down the spine of every parent and educator and, heck, every taxpayer in the state.

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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 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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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.