As appeared in the Caledonian Record December 15, 2016 - link
Last week I, along with many Vermonters, read that the State Board of Education and its chair Stephan Morse were declaring victory for the controversial Education law known as Act 46. It “has been a huge success and does not require significant revision,” Morse said. Having followed Act 46 very closely through the legislature and hundreds of hours of testimony, I was astounded. Act 46 is hardly a “huge success” by any objective measure. It is unlikely that we will have any reliable data on Act 46’s success until several years after the 2019 implementation date. Act 46 set out with two prominent goals which, to be objective, must be used to measure its success: reducing the cost of education delivery and improving outcomes of students. Research data from Campaign for Vermont Prosperity indicates that larger districts are unlikely to produce cost savings or better outcomes. In fact, the State Board of Education (SBE) has now admitted that Act 46 isn’t going to save any money.
Seemingly obvious to anyone present for Act 46 discussions was this unwritten goal: making Vermont’s education governance structure easier to manage from the state level. This was clear if you look at the primary sponsors of the legislation: the Vermont Agency of Education, the principals and superintendents associations, and the SBE, i.e. the administrators of Vermont’s education system. Even using this measure, however, Act 46 appears to be struggling. Progress on reducing administrative entities has been slow and halting.
The merger law is approaching the half way point for the “voluntary” consolidation period. To date, only two districts have voted to merge (both of which used the MUDD process, not the ACT 46 process) and only 14 out of 62 supervisory unions have merger plans in place. To put the SBE’s “huge success” claim in perspective, it is akin to a football team declaring victory with five minutes to go in the second quarter when they are on their own 25 yard line and 0-0 on the score board.
So what are Stephan Morse and the State Board of Education talking about? Here’s a thought: they have been pursuing district consolidations since 2009 with Act 153 and the RED process – the same year Morse joined the SBE. Only one district merged, so they made it easier and added more incentives with the MUDD process in 2011. Again, only one district merged, so in 2014 they made the consolidation process mandatory and added a 10 cent tax reduction for districts who jumped on board early. Compared to their previous failed consolidation efforts, perhaps 14 merger plans can be considered a victory for the State Board, but it is certainly not a victory for local school boards, property taxpayers, or the students they are supposed to be serving. Nay, where the real victory is for Stephan Morse and his board is the fact that they have finally gotten school districts to start consolidating by themselves.
Benjamin Kinsley is executive director of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity and a native Vermonter and graduate of Norwich University. He is committed to government reforms in transparency, accountability, and sustainability and has been outspoken on issues ranging from local control to animal rights.