The cart before the horse
Editor of the Reformer:
Jeffrey Francis from the Vermont Superintendents Association wrote an op-ed piece in the Tuesday Reformer in which he espouses the virtues of Vermont's new Act 46. I would like to point out a few things that make implementation of the act difficult and make its goals hard to accomplish.
The first is a simple calculation that I believe the Legislature should have provided: the cost per pupil analysis done for the act is based on the average loss of students throughout the state, which is about 2 percent fewer kids each year. However, many districts are not losing students and some are gaining students. These trends are cyclical but it would have cost the state only pennies to look at individual districts and make a slightly more sophisticated analysis of their population trends. We are now doing this in my school district and I encourage others whose schools are growing to find ways to assess their actual growth rates because these drastically affect the projected tax rate.
Secondly, a much greater fault with the law: districts are being encouraged to merge under Act 46 in order to achieve equity and cost reduction. But look around at which districts are talking with which districts: pretty much the low-spending districts are seeking other low-spending districts with which to merge and the same is true for districts with high per-pupil costs. I have not seen one instance of a proposed merger where the districts are drastically different in their spending or tax rates. The Agency of Education could, according to the law, force-merge some of these districts if they have not chosen partners already so many schools are scurrying to get merged before that happens. This pattern codifies and perpetuates inequity rather than breaking the cycle.
Lastly, a problem with hastily passed legislation of any sort: Act 46 offers districts an option to petition for an alternative structure, which means that the district can continue to operate unmerged the way that it currently does. However, many of the parameters for this petition have not been drawn up yet so a district does not know whether its petition might be successful or not. For example, geographical isolation is mentioned in the law as being a critical factor for alternative status but is not defined. And the district is tasked with demonstrating to the Agency of Education that it can provide a good quality education at a reasonable cost but how and by whom are these to be determined? The deadlines for petitioning for alternative structure status come before these parameters are to be defined by the state.
These are perhaps unintended consequences of the act but they are consequences anyway and I believe it is a mistake to have districts merging before the Legislature gets a chance to address these and other aspects of the law.
Dan MacArthur, Marlboro, June 23