Sixty years ago, our family drove to Burlington two or three times a year. This was before the interstate, car culture, and paved roads wove Vermont together into a rural community. Towns were socially and economically more self-reliant. They had to be. Few townsfolk ventured far afield. But in the intervening years the impacts of communication technology, transportation, and state and global businesses rather than local employers has eroded town boundaries, economies, and social cultures.
Some of our schools and their governance are artifacts of that bygone era, yet we cling to the mirage of “local control.” State and federal revenue sources with their mandates and curricular requirements, regional healthcare and energy costs, and a national teachers’ union have long since laid to rest the idea of local control. But we persist in our belief.
It’s often noted that our student population is similar in size to that of a large suburban school district. Our schools, however, are managed as 277 school districts with 282 school boards governed by 62 supervisory unions. The first school consolidation occurred in 1892 and Vermont’s motley collection of 2500 isolated school districts became the 277 we know today. There’s been no recognition of socio-economic and technical change in school governance since then. We can no longer afford to ignore change.
Currently, superintendents spend too much time answering to countless small district boards in their unions when their time would be much better spent implementing new educational quality standards that focus on learners and teachers rather than administrators. Updating school governance would streamline decision-making, enhance accountability, improve efficiencies, and make the whole system more agile. It would adjust for changes in the last century and those we face in this one. Today’s leadership has the vision but lacks the governance agility to implement needed change in the classroom.
Although costs loom large for property taxpayers and the legislature, equal access to quality teaching is just as important in any reform, especially as Vermonters’ wealth continues to diverge.
The argument for small local schools is age-specific. Public school access should be optional at age two or three and mandatory by age four when kids are deep into learning. Pre-school to grade four should be in the heart of the community, no matter how small. Middle and high schools should be regional; colleges – anywhere in the world. Transportation costs can and should be mitigated by coordinating with the proliferating public bus systems. Most city kids ride subways and busses to school. Local early ed schools should be open year-round and integrated with other small-town infrastructure like libraries, police, and town offices.
The contention that local control equals quality is nonsense. Great, well-trained teachers, visionary leadership, and streamlined governance are at the heart of any great system. CVU in Hinesburg and U-32 in East Montpelier are fine academic examples of consolidated systems.
A good start to controlling cost and enhancing learner opportunity for all would be to make our school governance more agile, equitable, and efficient.