Campaign for Vermont's Three E's of Prosperity - education, ethics, and economics - have been getting a lot of attention in the State House this year. Here is a breakdown of what's been happening.
Education – Act 46 update
Following weeks of impassioned testimony, the Senate floor initially passed a version of the House bill that allows for an extension to the Act 46 forced merger process. The extension would be dependent on demonstrated action on the part of the school district to move forward with the merger process. Schools who wish to take advantage of the merger extension, an extension which would change the deadline from July 2019 to July 2020, would need to create a merger board and move forward with merger proceedings. Furthermore, only schools those that choose to merge by the initial July 2019 deadline will qualify for Small School Grants; those under an extension will not be able to apply for these funds. While this would not stop the merger process, it would give towns more time to figure out merged budgets, transfer of assets, and debt consolidation issues.
This bill also gives more time for the current lawsuits to play out. Many of the 30+ districts that are fighting the law would likely not have an answer prior to July 2019 and would get caught in a position of merging even though they don’t have a resolution on the lawsuit. An extension gives more time to let things play out and hopefully give some clarity before having to make a decision.
This bill was met with aggressive opposition by both the Agency of Education and the Vermont School Boards Association, both of whom would rather see towns suffer and grapple with the impacts of trying to pull off merger budgets in only a matter of months. Both the AOE and SBOE have been unapologetic about ignoring local communities who have been working hard, within the law, to keep their kids students as the priority in this process. They have been impenitent about disregarding the voters in towns who democratically elected not to merge, forcing them to do so anyway.
Education – Miscellaneous Education Bill
This bill, S.164, would require Vermont Technical College (VTC) to create a pilot program for delivering degrees through career technical education centers around the state. The stated goal of the legislation is to have 70% of Vermont’s workforce holding some form of post-secondary degree or certificate by 2025. The bill also asks AOE to assist with the alignment of degree programs with workforce priority needs.
This bill also creates the Task Force on Campus Sexual Harm to examine issues relating to responses to sexual harm, dating, intimate partner violence, and stalking on campuses of postsecondary educational institutions in Vermont.
A short-form bill, H.516, was introduced at the end of last week which calls for exposing Vermont students to opportunities in technical education. Statement of purpose of the bill as introduced: This bill proposes to require public schools to include within their courses of study, beginning in the fifth grade, exposure to career technical education, in collaboration with the regional advisory board for its career technical education service region. This bill also requires that school guidance counselors receive specific training in methods to encourage students to pursue career technical education where best suited to meet their educational goals.
Short form bills are introduced with a statement of purpose but with no text. They have not undergone committee discussion. This usually happens when legislators want to keep a bill alive, but do not have time to give it full due diligence. In this case, the bill will head to the Senate for discussion, then be kicked back to the House at the start of the session in 2020.
H.516 has broad non-partisan support from 36 co-sponsors. It can be found here.
Victory for ethics in the House! The committee considering legislation that would have greatly restricted transparency and accountability in our ethics policy gave a vote of confidence and decided to table the bill. The Ethics Commission should not be able to be used as a political weapon; this legislation was, however, an over-response to last year’s Advisory Opinion issued regarding the Governor’s involvement with DuBois Construction. While by word it sought to “clarify intent”, in practice it would have proven to be overly restrictive to the Ethics Commission’s ability to serve Vermonters. A last-minute appeal from the Executive Director and the Chair of the Ethics Commission, in conjunction with public response in support of strong ethics, reversed what was expected to be a unanimous vote. Thank you to everyone who called and emailed. Your voice matters and it does make a difference!
On the Senate side we now have S.157. Per the statement of purpose, this bill “proposes to grant the State Ethics Commission the authority to adopt by rule an enforceable State Code of Ethics and to permit the Commission to receive, investigate, and adjudicate complaints alleging a violation of the State Code of Ethics, and to impose penalties upon a finding of such a violation." This bill was read to the Senate on 3/15 and referred to Senate Committee on Government Operations. Here is a link to the language as read.
Earlier this week the Senate took testimony from Ethics Commission Executive Director Larry Novins. Mr. Novins expressed concern that the Commission was being seen by the public as "toothless," something that is being reflected in a lower number of complaints filed this year. Opponents of ethics in Vermont use this as evidence that an Ethics Commission is not necessarily at all. Those people following this line of thinking would do well to remember that an absence of evidence is NOT evidence of absence.
After lengthy discussion and several hours of testimony, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development moved forward with another workforce development bill, H.533. While last year's bill focused largely on students and technical education, this year the focus is primarily on adult education. The bill was referred to Appropriations, which, unfortunately, stripped the bill of defined funding for several of the bill's initiatives. New language simply states that "best efforts shall be made to appropriate," wording that is wide open for interpretation and excuses.
H.533 is now being considered by the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs.
Campaign Vermont is a staunch supporter of technical education for students and adults alike. We must provide opportunities for those who seek to improve their situation. We must align our educational opportunities with the needs of today's businesses. We must prioritize the creation of a strong, modern, accessible workforce.
Like S.164, this bill also proposes to set a goal that 70% of working-age Vermonters shall possess a credential of value as defined by the State Workforce Development Board by 2025. It allocates funds to training that results in industry-recognized certification or a registered apprenticeship, provides training for businesses with 50 or fewer employees, and explores the creation of a fully integrated adult career and technical education system. The bill also takes steps to face recruitment and relocation needs, seeks to address licensing barriers for medical professionals, and works to connect military families with Vermont jobs. Here is a link to the full bill.
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