SA Messenger 10.13.16 Editorial on Act 46

St. Albans Messenger, 10/13/2016 – Page A04
by Emerson Lynn

Act 46 opponents use poor arguments to suspend the law.  Candidates for political office, and all school board members across Vermont are receiving an appeal from the nonprofit group Vermonters  for Schools and Communities to hit the pause button on Act 46, the state’s school consolidation law.

The group’s intent is to have legislation passed that would stop the consolidation process in its tracks, and to spend a full year considering the law’s reach, its effects, and its accountability.

This is not unexpected. Act 46 is arguably the most important, and far-reaching educational reform bill ever considered by the Vermont Legislature. It addresses two fundamental issues: equity in educational outcomes, and a 150-year-old educational governance structure dealing with 21st century needs.

What the law recognizes is that we can no longer support an educational  system that continues to cost us more money when we are educating  far fewer students. It recognizes that this demographic decline has resulted in schools so small that the resources are not available to give the students the education they need and deserve.

As the anti-Act 46 group notes, the law creates losers and winners. It also reduces the numbers of school boards, which reduces the number of people involved in the decision making process. It will also result in the closing of some schools.

Yes, the law may do all that. There is no way to improve our educational  standing, and to do so affordably without significant and disruptive  changes.

When the anti-Act 46 group first came together, the objective was to have the law repealed. That was never going to happen. The tact now is to have all timelines extended for a year – even for those communities  that have approved consolidation plans – and to require a thorough review of the process, including the requirement that all districts rethink their proposals and provide a “robust assessment of all options before coming to the State Board with any single proposal.”

In other words, they want to kill the process by overburdening school districts with costly informational requests, requiring in advance proof that the changes will be effective before the changes are even made.

We get the fact that change is difficult, nor are we opposed to those who think they have a better plan for their schools. They should push to make their own cases understood. But they also have to address the issues of equity and cost. It doesn’t work for a school to stay as it is just because they want to be excused from these requirements. Nor does it make sense to make those districts that have voted to consolidate to stop the implementation of their plans.

The anti-Act 46 group should also drop its contention that the law has a negative effect on our democracy. Here is the claim: “…if consolidation  goes as planned, ½ to 2/3 of the state’s school boards will be eliminated. This is especially devastating to fostering women in leadership,  since women hold over half of Vermont’s school board seats …. Reducing the number of school boards reduces the number of people who serve as community ambassadors for public education, and who have fiduciary responsibility for the well bring of our schools.”

Oh, my. So, we’re supposed to keep in place a costly, out-dated 150year-old school governance system because it’s a place to build local leadership skills?

Not only is that absurd, and incredibly expensive, it ignores the fact that even with a fully implemented Act 46 Vermont still has more school board representation on a per student basis than any other state in the nation.

What the anti-Act 46 crowd is responding to is this: They represent towns that are small in size with schools that are shrinking. They represent  towns that have not found a way to consolidate their districts and they worry about what that means for their schools and for their taxpayers who will end up paying higher tax bills to fund those districts that have voted to merge.

This is an offshoot of the urban/rural struggle that affects Vermont and most of the rest of the nation. It’s a tough spot. But what Act 46 actually facilitates is the need to address this reality, rather than to pretend  it doesn’t exist. In other words, is   it better to have one school that is strong, one that provides solid educational outcomes for its students, and one that attracts growth to the area, or is it better to remain as is, with three schools, all weak, all losing students, none of which are pillars  of strength in their communities?

Vermont’s student count has plummeted by over 20,000 since the mid-1990s. We continue to lose more each year. By 2030, we will be down another 15,000 to 20,000. We are being forced to manage to lower numbers,  yet maintain, or improve educational outcomes.

The anti-Act 46 group would have us pretend the challenges don’t exist. They do.