Ventriss Op-Ed: Rethinking Education Governance

by Lisa Ventriss, President, Vermont Business Roundtable

In the winter of 2007 the Vermont Business Roundtable, along with the Vermont Superintendents Association, convened a group of business and education leaders around some simple goals: to develop mutual understanding and respect for our respective issues and priorities; to inform each other’s thinking with factual information and industry insight; and, to find common ground that could lay the foundation for policy recommendations. We recruited organizations that could bring balance and non-partisan independence to our discussions, and charged ourselves to provide “bold and long-term leadership” on education reform efforts. Thus was born the Business-Education Alliance.

Over the next 16 months, the Alliance embraced two major areas of focus: cost containment and governance. The members reached consensus on the vision and needs, and a majority (not all) of the members agreed with all the recommendations released in April 2008.  Key among the needs identified by the report was to create a clear and unified statewide vision and corresponding goals for all Vermont’s children that drives the work of the Governor, State Board of Education, Commissioner, educators, legislators, school boards, business community, state agencies, higher education and communities. However, it readily became apparent that the current governance structure was the primary barrier to addressing that need.

The Executive Branch is accountable only tangentially through the appointment of the State Board of Education; therefore, there is no formal connection between the state education system and other functions or agencies of state government. This has resulted in limited accountability at the executive level and in significant cost shifts from various agencies to local education entities and the Education Fund with little or no transparency.

The Legislature has enacted a myriad of disjointed mandates and policies, which have caused the Education Commissioner and local schools to expend limited resources on responses to an array of demands that are not related to any coherent vision.

While the Education Commissioner is statutorily designated the steward for public education in Vermont, the current structure does not support that role. Unfortunately, there is no one position in the state that can clearly provide the enterprise-wide leadership needed for defining and implementing a transformational education initiative.

The adverse consequences of these various levels of functioning and governance have only damaged the public’s trust in education. According to the Roundtable’s 2010 Pulse of Vermont: Quality of Life Survey, conducted by Saint Michael’s College, public support for additional investments in public schools is at the lowest recorded level since the studies began in 1990. Another question revealed that only 58% would rate their local public schools as being “very good” or “good”. Clearly, some Vermonters feel that spending more on education will not translate into better outcomes.

The Alliance report included two strong recommendations to address governance: first, restructure the purpose and membership of the State Board of Education to measure progress through defined goals, outcomes measures and expectations for performance; and, second, create a Governor-appointed Secretary of Education who would be a member of the Governor’s Cabinet and articulate the shared vision and goals through an inclusive process.

House Bill 440 proposes to restructure the Department of Education and State Board of Education similar to the recommendations put forth by the Alliance. This bill is worthy of vigorous debate because the effort to transform our educational system requires a more unified, coherent approach; one that can optimize limited human and financial resources. The latest student achievement scores demand as much.

In these times of lingering fiscal constraint, society continues to place increased demands on our schools to provide a myriad of social, health and human services while preparing our students for a productive future. If we are going to succeed, we need coordination from the top that runs all the way through and across state government. With the Governor’s strong interest in education, let us not squander the opportunity to demonstrate “bold and long-term” leadership to the ultimate benefit of students and taxpayers alike.