Public Assets Institute > Blog > ‘The good’ of Vermont is in its community schools

‘The good’ of Vermont is in its community schools

In his Inaugural Address, Gov. Phil Scott described a state of 251 towns, cities, and villages, where  “the good” of Vermont “lives in each and every one of our communities.” But the administration also released this month a vision for the future of education in Vermont: one Greatly Simplified School District (GSSD) that would abolish local school boards and districts and run the education system out of Montpelier. Apparently, the people in those towns and villages are not good enough to run their schools.

The governor hit a lot of the right notes in his speech. He identified the challenges the state faces: an aging population, a smaller labor force, declining student enrollment, the imbalance of economic opportunities between Chittenden County and the rest of the state. And while he didn’t explain how to do it, he said one key to Vermont’s future was to build on its strengths. Individuals and families who are attracted by Vermont’s quality of life can increase our payrolls, fill out our school rosters, and expand our tax base.

We agree.

We also think the governor was correct in pointing to the role communities play in Vermont’s quality of life. We’re not talking about the Norman Rockwell image. We’re talking about the connectedness that communities have despite opioid addiction, kids coming to school hungry, and the fact that most people commute to jobs in other towns. What the governor does not acknowledge is that the local school is one of the main institutions—in some towns the only remaining institution—that gives a town its connectedness.

Parents stay connected to the local school long after their own children have graduated. Schools oversee mentoring programs that make valuable connections between students and local adult role models. School sports, school plays, and school dinners may be the only town-wide events where some people visit with their neighbors.

Local school boards, like select boards, are gateways to civic engagement and participatory democracy. Hundreds of local school boards and more than a thousand school directors are not symptoms of bureaucratic inefficiency. They represent one of Vermont’s great strengths—and one of its important attractions. Moving to a small Vermont town is more appealing to young parents if they know they can play a direct role in shaping the community and its future, especially their children’s schooling.

None of the sense of community the governor evoked in his address—”The good is in this chamber…. It’s in our schools and churches, our businesses and farms, our forests, trails and town halls.”—is evident in “Designing Our Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Vermont’s Education System.” Instead, the “Blueprint” describes a system “directed by the Secretary of Education and administered by the Agency of Education.” Education policy would be primarily in the hands of the governor and the Legislature.

That system makes no room for local democracy. “Each school would be required to have a Parent School Committee . . . but the principal would have final authority and responsibility for school decisions.”

The governor called on legislators to “inspire a renewed faith in government and give hope to every community.” To do that and maintain the quality of life the governor extolled, local schools and local school boards need a state secretary and an agency that supports them, not an education czar dictating to them from Montpelier.

The Vermont portrayed in the Inaugural Address, coupled with a real commitment to create a state that works for everybody, has a chance to attract young families and boost the state’s economy. But the Vermont the “Blueprint” envisions is not a place that many Vermonters will recognize. Nor does it cultivate and safeguard the connected, engaged communities that newcomers would want to call home.  


Posted by Jack Hoffman on January 17, 2019 at 2:40 pm

3 Responses to “‘The good’ of Vermont is in its community schools”

  1. Jane Osgatharp says:

    Thank you once again for pointing out the contradictions between the rhetoric & the action. We need you!

  2. Ann Manwaring says:

    Thank you for so clearly setting out why schools in ALL communities are so necessary for a vibrant Vermont. As long as policy continues to be driven by economy of scale thinking (which gave birth to Act 46), rural Vermont communities will continue to decline. I hope your considerable research capacity might address how we might shift our thinking to understanding what outcomes we are buying for the money spent and how it differs among communities of differing sizes.

    And secondly your Institute is well situated to evaluate whether and how the present distribution of money out of the Ed Fund (also driven by economy of scale thinking) might be altered to lead to substantially equitable opportunity for ALL Vermont students. I would encourage you to follow the law suit filed by the Town of Whitingham which goes directly to this point.

  3. The idea or plan for public education in VT not involving local school board members is, a faulty plan a best. The “good” of VT is its local public schools which involve local residents as governing board members, many of whom are parents of the students in said local public schools. I have served as a school superintendent in 4 states, including Vermont. I was privileged to have some excellent board members who had some “skin in the game” and offered good advice and input regarding the wants and needs of the community. I also made it a practice to live in each of the communities in which I served, for the same reasons local board members are needed.
    Wesley L. Knapp, Ph.D.