• The annihilation of local
    April 23,2014
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    Education’s experts and policymakers have spent four decades leading schools astray, promoting one ill-conceived pipe dream theory and practice after another.

    From whole language, portfolios and obsessive standardized testing to No Child Left Behind and the Common Core, we’ve squandered two generations in thrall to bad ideas.

    Each time things end in disaster, we turn again to the same experts and policymakers to save us. To promote their latest recycled scheme, these experts are fond of intoning that “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” It’s time we realized, even if they don’t, that they’re talking about themselves.

    Vermonters are now facing a move in our Legislature, endorsed by the state’s education bureaucracy, to consolidate our local schools into “expanded” districts. Some of us, thinking that consolidation would bring greater efficiency and therefore lower costs, may at first suppose there might be some fiscal merit in the proposal.

    There isn’t.

    Even the bill’s supporters now generally concede there’s little likelihood of savings and considerable probability that consolidation will increase the cost of public education. That’s because for every imagined economy of scale, at least as many inefficiencies arise owing to the greater distance of the new district bureaucracies from the classrooms where education happens.

    While the bill does replace existing supervisory union superintendents with fewer uber-superintendents, anyone who thinks those expanded district superintendents won’t be hiring a corps of assistant superintendents has never met a superintendent. In addition, the bill and its sponsors don’t begin to account for the significant costs involved in leveling teachers’ salaries and equalizing tax rates.

    With that reality in mind, the reality that consolidation won’t save money, can we please stop citing the defeat of a fraction of the state’s school budgets as a justification for this bill?

    Even more crucially, the bill does more than reshuffle supervisory unions. It eliminates local school boards.

    Read that again.

    It eliminates local school boards.

    Eliminating those boards eliminates your power to control your local school. This means that you can be outvoted at the polls by residents from other towns regarding the district’s school budget and your taxes and that your town’s representative on the expanded board can be outvoted at meetings by representatives from the other towns in your new district. In short, the board members from other towns can vote to do anything they want in and with your town’s school, including close it if they decide it will save the expanded district money.

    The bill’s advocates insist it somehow protects small local schools. This is an illogical argument at best and a cynical deceit at worst.

    With the bill financially all but indefensible, proponents now cite “equity” as its prime justification. While equity formerly meant the ability to spend money on school programs, which is why we relegislated our school tax system via Act 60 and Act 68, supporters now assert that equity means “the quality and variety of educational opportunities available to students throughout the state.” In other words, not only must the students in your school have access to the same amount of money, but the teachers, parents and residents in your town must decide to do the same things with that money as all other schools.

    Advocates of the bill will doubtless claim I’m overstating their intention. But if that’s not what they mean, then their definition of equity and their justification of larger districts make no sense. The logical extension of their species of equity is that Vermont should be redefined as one large statewide school district.

    Most proponents will deny that’s what they have in mind. But if they mean what they say, that’s what they logically should have in mind.

    I’m sure it will occur to them sooner or later.

    Will the Legislature next contrive to eliminate select boards? Will road “equity” next be required of towns when it comes to asphalt and gravel? Shouldn’t vital services such as police and fire protection be as equitably available as education? At least for our schools, voluntary cooperation is insufficient to satisfy the Legislature. Which town prerogative and service will fall next?

    Proponents maintain that we must redefine “local.” They contend that just as neighborhoods once gave way to towns as our standard of “local,” so must we now abandon individual towns in favor of combinations of towns, that those expanded districts are our new “local.” Several flaws invalidate that argument. When we combined our hamlet schools, our towns already existed, and they were composed of our neighbors. Our towns weren’t artificially formulated and imposed to replace our neighborhoods.

    Supporters nebulously claim the bill is about “what’s good for kids.” The state Board of Education, in a typically meaningless flight of rhetoric, declares the bill will enable all students to “thrive and prosper.” No one is against children thriving and prospering. The question is who gets to decide what’s good for your kids, what thriving and prospering look like for your children. This bill says it’s not up to towns, and it’s not up to parents. In place of towns and parents the Legislature would insert itself and its new mandated, expanded districts.

    That arrogance is unconscionable.

    The Legislature’s blindness to the decades of follies and failures spawned by the Agency of Education and our state’s education bureaucrats, and its willingness to again trust the recommendations of those bureaucrats and to place consolidation in the hands of an agency “design team,” is appalling.

    The Legislature’s silence in the face of self-serving complaints that local governance of schools is too “inconvenient” and time-consuming is a dereliction and a disappointment.

    A pernicious fault in public education is that too many decisions are already made by authorities too far removed from schools, classrooms, and students. This bill only extends that distance.

    In a bid to garner support, some legislators have proposed permitting limited school choice within the expanded districts. I’m not opposed to school choice.

    But we need to remember, as we stand on the brink of tearing down our home-based system of schools, that the school choice that matters to most of us is the choice we exercise through our local boards to make our children’s schools what we want them to be.

    That’s something none of us should be willing to lose or be compelled to surrender.



    Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.
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