Update: 4/2/2010 - Rep. Donovan, Chair of House Ed Committee has declared OPTION 1 "deader than dead"
This is an in-depth update. Yes, it is long, grab a cup of tea. A lot of you have been asking me to explain all of the moving parts, and where exactly things are at. As of today, this is the best explanation I can give.
We will know more about the status of H.782 tomorrow, and a plan of action will emerge from that. Other than participating in the hearings or writing emails and letters to your representatives and senators in favor of choice, we are in sit-and-wait mode (for the next 12 hours anyway:-)
H.728 and Challenges for Change (CFC) Explained, and Best Case/Worst Case Scenarios for School Choice.
This is a thorough summary of the two major issues in the legislature that could impact school choice in the near future. The situation changes daily in the House and Senate Ed Committees. The legislative session ends by the end of the second week in May.
H.782 is currently in the Ways and Means Committee. It is being discussed Thursday morning and may be voted upon. It could die in the committee or it could be sent along to the Senate Ed Committee. As it stands, H.782 is considered to be a voluntary district merger bill. It has provisions for the new larger districts to decide whether or not they will allow choice outside of their districts, and if they will include independent schools outside of their districts. We have been told that there are already amendments written that will remove the choice components from the bill if it reaches the House floor. Best Case Scenario: The bill dies in Ways and Means, or Senate Ed guts the bill and puts in a full school choice bill. Worst Case Scenario: The bill as is makes it onto the floor, choice is removed and we have to fight to defeat it.
The House Education Committee has been taking testimony from Ed Commissioner Vilaseca on his Challenges for Change recommendations (more on that below.) This testimony will continue on Thursday morning. Challenges for Change REQUIRES the House Education Committee have their recommendations of the required cost savings submitted to the Appropriations Committee by Wednesday April 7th.
It is important to note that we keep hearing that this isn't about money, it is about "improved outcomes." Interpret that as you will.
From what I have been hearing there is support for total school choice in both the House Ed and the Senate Ed, it tends to be more with the Republican members. It is my guess that they need to see broader based parental support for choice if they are going to go for it. The hearings are one way for this to happen, letters and in person visits at the State House are another. If you have an interest in showing up at the State House I would be more than happy to show you around the building and introduce you to committee members.
It is extremely important to understand that when districts merge under current Vermont law they have to choose between having a school or having choice. There are quite a few lawmakers who would be content to let consolidation happen without addressing choice and letting the choice get squeezed out. If a consolidation bill passes it MUST contain language for choice or we WILL lose it.
The Senate Education Committee is waiting to see if H.782 will make it out of Ways and Means for their consideration. In the meantime they are holding hearings around the state for input on School Consolidation, School Choice, Education Funding and Class Size. They have also asked the Legislative Aid (Donna Russo-Savage, an extraordinary woman who puts the committee's wants into legislative language) to collect information on school choice and consolidation as it is being enacted around the country, which she has done.
All About Challenges for Change (CFC)
The state has a BIG budget deficit. The legislature and administration worked together to pass a bill that required a review process of different departments to find efficiencies and improve outcomes, this is called Challenges for Change (CFC).
The Education Commissioner was told 13.7 million needed to be saved in FY 2011 and 40 million in FY 2012. Note that there is still question on these numbers because when school districts voted on their budgets this year they cut 20 million in spending over last year. It is not set in stone that this takes care of the FY2011 13.7 million, and if the remaining 6.7 million savings would carry over to FY 2012. On top of that, our lawmakers still can't get a straight answer from anyone on whether the 40 million for 2012 includes the 13.7 from 2011 or is in addition to 2011.
Education Commissioner Vilaseca has presented his CFC recommendations to the House Education Committee. He does NOT have the authority to implement these recommendations. It is up to the House Education committee to submit THEIR final recommendations and request changes in statue where necessary, to the Appropriations committee who will draft the bill.
Here is a link to the CFC document that was presented on Tuesday, Education starts on page 39:
Best Case Scenario: I am of the opinion that of the three options below, Option 3 is the most desirable.
Worst Case Scenario: Option 1 - it could very well kill choice.
(Here goes... I edited out the section on special education)
1. Merge the member districts of the 46 supervisory unions into supervisory districts by school year 20012-2013 so that the total number of supervisory districts (including the 12 already in existence) in the state is no more than 50. These districts averaging some 1800 pupils will be larger than what we are accustomed to but will still be small.
2. Establish minimum student-to-staff ratios in Year 1 at 4.75:1 (currently at 4.55:1) and 4.95:1 in Year 2. “Staff” refers to all staff employed by school districts and supervisory unions. “Pupils” refer to the full-time equivalent enrollment of the public schools. School districts should take advantage of attrition as much as possible to achieve the higher ratios. Even with the increased student-to-staff ratio proposed Vermont will still be among the fewest student-per-adult ratio of any state and, by national standards, our schools and districts will still be small. Arguably, our larger schools and districts will not lose the value of small size. They will be in a structure that gives the benefits of relatively small size complemented by at least some economies of scale.
3. Create a commission to review the viability of schools with enrollment of fewer than 75 students considering issues such as geographic isolation and the capacity of any surrounding schools. The purpose of the commission would be to identify small schools that should remain open.
I believe this plan will serve to reduce costs as well as increase learning opportunities leading to the desired outcomes for students. Simply put, smaller districts have fewer options financially and programmatically, larger districts have more.
Vermont’s 246 towns are served by over 280 school boards, with over 1,480 members, for approximately 92,000 students. Substantially reducing the number of school districts, and in turn boards, will provide consistent, high-quality opportunities to students. There is no magic number of school districts. However, they would have to be large enough to expand school choice for students, reduce the administrative inefficiencies we currently experience and economize the school staff.
In a more streamlined administrative structure, opportunities not currently available to our students and families could be realized. If there were more schools within each educational district, districts could offer options based on the interest and needs of individual students and families.
Middle and high schools could offer different options for students in order to attain their diploma. These schools could offer specialties in particular areas, while still providing the liberal arts education our public schools have traditionally provided. Schools could offer students the opportunity to do semester-long internships while still attending their school of choice. Not all high schools would operate this way, as our current structure serves many students well. However, for those capable students who do not reach their potential currently, these schools would offer an alternative. Schools partnering with private business could provide workforce development, internships, job shadowing or other forms of real-life learning that could be enhanced by such a model.
Schools could expand their offerings to concentrate on having a richer curriculum in specific topics, while their neighboring school may have a different focus. This type of “magnet” school concept could allow for one school to have a focus on arts/humanities while another school in their district could concentrate on math/science/technology. The convergence of theory and application could be accomplished, as schools would not be expected to offer everything to everyone because students/parents would have a choice in their education.
If the proposal above is not accepted the fiscal challenge in FY 2012 can be met by establishing minimum student-to-staff ratios to take effect in FY 2012 at 4.95:1 (currently at 4.55:1). “Staff” refers to all staff employed by school districts and supervisory unions. “Pupils” refer to the full-time equivalent enrollment of the public schools.
If Option 2 is not accepted the fiscal challenges in FY 2012 can still be met by allocating to each school district a mandatory reduction amount so that its FY 2012 education spending will be lower the its FY 2011 education spending by that amount. Leave to the local boards and administrators to determine the manner in which those cuts should occur.