We must consider “childcare” as public education.

It’s time to reimagine and redesign Vermont’s public education system. Patching up a system that’s failing us in equity, access, and quality, we’re running out of financial caulk as the cracks widen up and down the system from pre-K through our state colleges.

The new Biden budget proposes $309B in new “Cradle-to-Career” public education funding for two years of free community college and free pre-K programs but will this create better outcomes or simply mask critical problems rather than solve them? Money is not always the solution.

The Vermont State College System has just gotten life-support of some $16M dollars, easing pressure to address its inherent flaws.

According to a recent legislative plan, yet to be approved, the bankrupt Vermont pension system will extract $300M in concessions from current school employees and offer a $150M one-time contribution by the State. But these two initiatives only stave off a situation worsening at the rate of some $36-$60M a year.

In K-12, the cost of special ed has outstripped the cost of education itself. Our schools and families are overwhelmed by a tsunami of psychological and behavioral disorders not addressed by an increasingly absent mental health community. Another pressure is the declining conviction within the home that a functioning democracy depends on a vibrant public education system.

At $19,340 per student we spend more per pupil on public education than all but four other states. Nationally, we’re seen as having a good educational system, but when compared to other countries, the U.S. Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ratings for the U.S. in math, science, and literacy place us 38th among 71 participating countries.

Are our investments paying off, or is it time to reimagine public education?

Our public school student population has shrunk by 21,000 since 1997, forcing school closings and consolidations. This demographic decline is expected to continue until 2030 and sets up a Sophie’s choice of whether to lower costs by closing local schools when that means destroying what is a vital community hub in  many Vermont small towns.

We’re expending massive amounts of energy and money while not addressing the real problems in our public education system, which brings us face to face with an age-old question: Isn’t it cheaper to reimagine and then rebuild a more cost-efficient and effective system that addresses the real factors at play in education today – declining demographics, skyrocketing costs and tuitions, and technological, cultural, and economic changes?

By way of example, the current system was built on the agrarian calendar – nine months in school and then three months off to help on the farm. A further complication – most schools suffer from deferred maintenance of ageing infrastructure. The school in which I first taught French, MT Abraham U.H.S in Bristol, had just opened its doors in 1968, and today is being considered for demolition. It never envisaged digital libraries, remote learning, life-long learning, two parents in the workplace, or the additional burden placed on schools to accommodate behavioral, mental, and developmental issues.

The essence of shortsightedness is to be closing community schools while building a new “childcare” infrastructure – a duplicative, and more expensive way to respond to a clear need for childcare from birth on. Experiments are underway that integrate childcare into the public education system. Why not build on this and reimagine public education as a life-long learning institution supporting learners from six-month into old age, both under the Dept. of Education where they belong.

Imagine if public education began at six-months after a paid family bonding leave to allow for the critical bonding of a newborn with its parents. Public education would not become mandatory until age three or four but would be available from six months on to working parents as “public education.”

Professional early educators with specialized pediatric knowledge and family-support services would be available to assist in identifying early adverse childhood experiences(ACES) and, if needed, call in trauma-informed counselors to work with children and families to address and remediate problems that, if undetected and unaddressed, accelerate into special ed, criminal justice involvement, and often corrections in later life. The hungry child living in the back seat of their mother’s car does not come to school with learning as his or her top priority.

Vermont’s special-education population currently has the largest share of students with emotional disturbance of any state in the nation — and nearly three times the averages seen in neighboring states. In 2016, on average, Vermont’s supervisory unions and school districts spent an extra $21,840.per special-education student. That’s almost twice as much as the amount spent per special-ed student in other states.

It’s also time to abandon our current educational architecture – pre-school / nursery, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, junior high, high school, and college – and see education as an agile continuum that focuses on the individual learner. These old and arbitrary divisions (and their silly graduations) defy everything we know about childhood development and distract us from the individual learner’s needs and abilities, which develop at different ages.

Assessment of a student’s acquisition of “transferable skills” – i.e. defined proficiencies and performance indicators – is a much better advancement measurement for them and for society. Some learners are ready for college at 15, others at 35,  and others attend college while completing their final year in high school. Still others take time out to travel, do internships, or work, and return to college when they’re ready.

I’ve written in the past about the need to also imagine a realistic 21st century curriculum. Critical to this will be the teaching of civics and community service, sadly missing for too many young people: citizens’ rights and responsibilities; an overview of political systems covering community, state, and federal government ; embracing diversity, equity, & inclusion; understanding the criminal justice system; learning the essential role of education in civic participation: and the civic obligation to participate (vote & serve) and contribute.

And, in a nation obsessed with the abortion question, age-appropriate sex education is critical: family planning, reproductive physiology, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), puberty, LGBTQIA equity, privacy, and pornography.

We’re at an inflection point in public education. If we don’t join together to reimagine it as a cost-efficient institution that fulfills our constitutional obligation to provide a free and effective education to our citizens –one that embraces change – we’re flunking this test.

Students don’t need nine months in conventional classrooms. We can better apportion their time by integrating online education, learning-teams, and time in the resource-rich “field laboratories” that our communities provide – natural spaces, museums, concert halls and theaters, businesses, and social-mission organizations. And, any new system will have to accommodate and balance work, family, equity, and learning at all ages.

If the goal is to better serve our life-long learners, families, and communities while enriching our cultural, civic, economic and social well-being, and being better  stewards of our tax dollars, it’s time to reimagine public education. And… there may be no stronger economic development strategy for Vermont than a state-of-the-art public education system.

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