Two weeks ago, the House Education Committee unanimously passed H.883 with a vote of 10-0-1. The bill, which proposes to expand pre-kindergarten through grade 12 school districts by the year 2020, may be the most significant piece of legislation related to education since Vermont enacted Act 60 (1997) and Act 68 (2004). Acts 60 and 68 are the cornerstones of our current education funding system, which is widely recognized as one of the country's most equitable.

In Brigham v. State, The Vermont Supreme Court stated: "In Vermont the right to education is so integral to our constitutional form of government, and its guarantees of political and civil rights, that any statutory framework that infringes upon the equal enjoyment of that right bears a commensurate heavy burden of justification." In the ruling that lead to our current education finance system, the court ruled that "the conclusion becomes inescapable that the [then current] system [had] fallen short of providing every school-age child in Vermont an equal educational opportunity."

The current education finance system, adopted by the state in response to the Brigham decision, has considerably reduced the variability of Vermont's communities' education expenditures. Nevertheless, in communities across Vermont there are sharp inequities in the breadth, depth and quality of opportunities to learn available to our state's students. This leaves children in some communities ill-prepared for today's careers or unable to take advantage of post-secondary opportunities to which they would otherwise have access.

By streamlining the Green Mountain State's current school governance structure, and "right sizing" it from 282 school districts and 60 Supervisory Unions to 45 to 50 school districts, H.883 will ensure Vermont's education system provides a fundamental right to all of our state's children -- equal access to equal learning opportunities, regardless of where they reside.

H.883 proposes to have new school districts oversee a minimum of 1,250 students. Each expanded district would have one budget and would be governed by one school board. The bill establishes a voluntary process whereby local areas can join forces and create a new district by 2017.

To facilitate the implementation of the realignment process, the bill stipulates that a legal/fiscal research group will be named. Its purpose: to address issues that arise, including school choice, tax rates, the municipal ownership of property, procedures for voting on a districtwide budget, and the creation of uniform data and accounting systems.

The bill sets forth a streamlining process that honors factors, including communities' unique characters and histories, existing connections between communities, and potential obstacles posed by geography.

H. 883 received unanimous support from the House Education Committee based on extensive testimony from a wide cross section of individuals from diverse sectors with diverse interests. Most of those who testified echoed a common theme: Vermont's 19th century-based education system is failing to give all our state's children the 21st century skills necessary to succeed in today's global marketplace.

For the past 27 years, the Vermont Business Roundtable has embraced education reform as its top policy priority based on the recognition that improving educational outcomes for all Vermont citizens will lead to "a stronger democracy and a better prepared workforce."

Unfortunately, today some Vermonters are not receiving equitable learning opportunities. Many small school districts cannot afford to offer the socioeconomic and educational diversity larger schools do. Research shows larger districts are better equipped to offer the course work necessary for Vermont's youth to thrive in the global economy.

During the past few weeks, the Vermont Council on Rural Development has facilitated six "listening sessions," on behalf of the Vermont School Boards Association. The purpose of these gatherings has been to ensure school board members' concerns about the bill are heard. To date, 222 school board members have participated in these sessions.

This week, the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Education Committee hosted a joint hearing. This was the third public hearing held this session to ensure the public has ample opportunity to share its ideas and concerns regarding H.883. Over 100 people attended the first hearing the House Education Committee hosted early in February in Rutland. Roughly 150 people attended the second hearing held last month in Montpelier on the House floor.

To date, supporters of H.883 include Vermont's State Board of Education, the Vermont Business Roundtable, the Vermont Superintendents Association and four of Vermont's former Education Commissioners (Wolk, McNulty, Cate and Vilaseca).

If you would like to know more about H.883, visit the Vermont State legislature's website -- www.vermontlegislature.org -- where you will find the draft of the bill that passed and amendments made to date to the bill. I welcome your thoughts on this and any other issue. The best way for you to contact me is by e-mail (stuartcomm@gmail.com).

State Representative Valerie A. Stuart, Brattleboro District 2-1, has been on the House Education Committee for the past four years. She and her husband, John Mabie, have two children in college. Ian Stuart Mabie will graduate from Northeastern University in Boston, MA next month. Lauren Stuart Mabie, is in a junior at American University in Washington, DC where she is on a member of the ROTC on full scholarship. Both of them went to public school in Vermont from pre-K - grade 12.