by Lisa Ventriss
After a tremendous amount of hard and important work by the Legislature and Administration in the last biennium around education reform, for which they deserve our recognition and appreciation, Act 46: Unification to Achieve Sustainable Governance, was signed into law in June 2015. It created immediate opportunities for school districts and supervisory unions to unify, an action which will result in better educational opportunities for students and cost effectiveness for taxpayers.
Since enactment of Vermont’s merger law, we have seen some very exciting progress. The number of students served in unified districts has increased by more than 20,000, which brings the total population of students covered to roughly 42,000. Many other students live in communities that have adopted deliberate processes to move toward merger, and far fewer students are in communities that have made no progress to create systems of more reasonable scale and better opportunity. Since July 2015, voters in 50 towns within 12 supervisory unions have voted to merge 57 school districts into 11 unified union school districts (PK-12) and 1 modified unified union school district.
Importantly, Act 46 provides for a multi-year process for communities that voluntarily merge into a more streamlined governance model. The Act also requires that, in 2018, the Secretary and State Board of Education realign all remaining unmerged districts into more sustainable models to meet State goals that:
- Provide substantial equity in the quality and variety of educational opportunities;
- Lead students to meet or exceed State Education Quality Standards;
- Maximize operational efficiencies through greater flexibility to manage, share, and transfer resources, with a goal of increasing district-level student-to-staff ratios;
- Promote transparency and accountability; and
- Are delivered at a cost that parents, voters, and taxpayers alike value.
A map of merger activity shows that there are only a few Vermont communities that are reluctant to move ahead with any consolidation efforts. The arguments heard in opposition typically indicate less concern for students and taxpayers than support for a status quo that reflects anti-government sentiments, tones of elitism, and misperceptions of exceptionalism.
Because Act 46 is a transformational policy framework that will benefit all Vermont’s students, it is the students whose welfare and best interests should be the focus of these communities’ discussions. And while change of this scope is challenging and can be perceived as threatening to some who are content with the status quo, or to others who may not know how to initiate change in their communities, fear of change should not keep them from taking that important step.
Communities should be fearful of the results of denying better education, and thereby opportunities, to their children. Vermont’s future depends on having well-educated citizens ready to take their places in society and in the workforce. Act 46 is an important step toward that future.