Commentary: On democracy and Act 46


Does a democratic system rooted in civic participation with strong elected leadership and well-qualified, competent professional management benefit society and the taxpayers who fund it?

Listening to the candidates for governor, one would think so.

Each is working to convince Vermont's citizens that their analysis of key issues is correct, and, more significantly, that they have the better ideas to move the State forward. Each believes that he or she is best suited for the State's top post and each talks about assembling a well-qualified senior management team as a top priority.

While voting in November will determine our next governor, the election process reminds us that in a democracy we rely on citizen participation, informed decisions, strong leadership and well-qualified, competent management.

What do these observations have to do with Act 46 and Vermont's efforts to improve our education delivery system? A lot. Act 46 was crafted and approved by duly-elected representatives and senators. The law was enacted after in-depth analysis of multiple data points studied over several legislative sessions. The data paint a stark reality of the challenges facing schools and communities today and into the future, unless changes are made.

Consider the following:

In Vermont, education costs have risen dramatically while enrollment continues to fall. Some school districts have routinely cut programs as an annual budgeting "strategy." We spend more per pupil than nearly every other state, but our teacher pay ranks closer to the middle. Too many school buildings suffer from deferred maintenance and for ten years there has been no state construction aid. We have, by far, the lowest adult to student ratio in the country, and some school enrollments are now so small that viability and vitality are serious concerns.

Inequities between school districts are becoming more common and more apparent. Overall, we are not making enough progress in closing the achievement gap - a serious concern as our state grows more diverse and the income chasm widens. Our high school graduation rate is good, but our post-secondary enrollment and completion statistics do not measure up.

So, after considerable review and deliberation, the General Assembly took action and passed Act 46.

The Act prioritizes a better organized, more efficient and more manageable structure for achieving desired goals. And, significantly, it calls on local communities and school officials to pursue actions to move the education system forward.

As some point out, Act 46 is complex. That is understandable, because short of having the State take over the schools, or doing nothing, it needed to be. Act 46 is intended to improve a very complicated education delivery system.

The Act supports local decisions to create sustainable governance models leading to attainment of the following goals:

• Substantial equity in quality and opportunity;

• Improved student achievement;

• Maximizing efficiency through better allocation and sharing of resources;

• Transparency and accountability;

• Value to taxpayers, voters and parents

The legitimacy of these goals is tough to disagree with.

Critics of Act 46 tend to lament the call for changes to the governance structure rather than challenge the goals of the Act. They maintain that needed improvements can be accomplished within the current structures.

If that is true, why hasn't it happened?

Some critics fault the Legislature for providing property tax incentives to districts that create the structures called for in the Act. But providing incentives like tax credits is commonplace when policymakers are seeking to encourage a specific result.

And some critics respond to the Act by indicating that none or few of the challenges are in evidence in the schools in their communities. That may be true, but if you believe in education as a common good, isn't our collective duty to work together to improve things for all?

Those are some of the criticisms of Act 46.

But there are many more aspects of Act 46 worth considering.

If you believe that a democratic system benefits from citizen participation, the Act sets up ample process and plenty of opportunity for public input.

And, while some say voice will be diminished through unification, consider that currently most school board seats go uncontested, resulting in an exercise in self-selection, not a bona fide public election. Representative democracy suffers when elected seats go uncontested.

If you believe that democracy is better served when our institutions are staffed with competent, well-prepared system leaders, note that it has become increasingly difficult to attract qualified applicants for open positions. Most searches to fill superintendent and principal vacancies yield too few candidates. Many talented leaders may not wish to serve in a system poorly organized to address our formidable challenges, and, frankly, not well-designed to educate all of our children for the world awaiting them.

Some school board members support the Act because they believe that they can better serve students by working in a larger community. Some consider themselves stewards of the public education system overall.

Superintendents support Act 46 because it calls for more manageable, cost-effective, student-responsive systems.

Principals support the Act because unified systems reduce distractions andallow greater emphasis on the critical task of leading teaching and learning.

Perhaps most importantly, students have expressed a desire for the greater equity in opportunity that unified systems will provide.

Act 46 may not be perfect, but it is a law that turns toward, rather than away from, the challenges facing public education in Vermont. The law was enacted after considerable forethought on the part of the General Assembly, which spent several years developing this policy response to our demographic, fiscal, and equity challenges. The Act is grounded in data and trust in the ability of Vermonters to work together to create local solutions. This work is not easy, but if we are to preserve a strong public education system - the foundation of our democracy - it is work that we should all contribute to.

Jeffrey Francis is the executive director for the Vermont Superintendents Association.


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