OpEd: Our Act 46 bedtime story needs to change
Act 46 supporters have been busy continually retelling us — over and over — the happy Act 46 bedtime story. In the retellings there are celebrations, claims of validation and assertions that "it's working." Indeed some mergers have been forged; many in locations where merger work was already underway. Oh, so happy.
Yet experiences with Act 46 in scores of communities are highlighting a very different story: a very unhappy one. Not the, "communities are having a wonderful talk about the future of their schools," story. Not the, "Let's face our challenges and in the process strike a blow for democracy," stories.
This different Act 46 story — unacknowledged by most — is a sad and troubling one that reverberates across our state, as citizens learn what's involved in the fine print, and experience their local communities' response to the Act 46 mandates. It is a story of profound concern arising among citizens who care deeply about Vermont civic life and face the proposed elimination of scores of local school boards and erosion and weakening of local democracy. It is a gloomy story of families and communities awakening to the elimination of their historic school choice. It is a story of people in power — led by superintendents — planning for the expansion and empowerment of bureaucratic and top- heavy regionalized governance and organizational structures that seriously weaken ties among citizens, parents and their children's schools.
These changes are being implemented under the guise of "savings" and "efficiency" that look and sound fabulous on paper, however have not panned out very nicely in states where mergers have been policy.
It is a disturbing story that raises the prospect of accelerated social and economic decline in our rural communities, abetted and cemented into place by a political push for "unified educational systems" that appears to aim at the eventual closure or consolidation of our small schools. The story has been embellished by officials leading the charge with themes and information that evoke fear, anxiety, blame and guilt, and that do not honor the best of Vermonters' civic nature and motivations.
It is not helpful that Vermonters keep hearing the happy Act 46 bedtime story from our state leaders and officials. Indeed, our current subjection to the continued retellings raises a question: are our leaders interested in our difficult experience with Act 46, and what the true story tells us is actually needed from their leadership? The concerns are real, and spring from deeply held Vermont community and educational beliefs and values shaped by decades of work, service and commitment for children, families and community life. Our children and citizens deserve better.
Just over a year into Act 46 it is clear that we need to begin writing a very different and positive new educational change story: one about reworking our laws and rules to allow and help Vermonters design a sensible response to our pressing and complex educational, demographic and resource challenges, while at the same time strengthening our local democratic governance and political culture. A story about creating a dynamic and sustainable 21st century organizational model, and not one built upon a dated one size fits all 20th century bureaucratic solution. A story about a state policy that unquestionably assures historic (pre-existing) school choice; about a model that invests students, families and citizens in building a strong learning culture, generating specific and concrete learning and accountability goals and activities; about provisions for true transparency that are rooted in genuine community engagement and ownership; about schools that provide equity, opportunity and learning excellence, under sensible and careful management, at a cost that hard working Vermonters are willing to support.
Chaunce Benedict served in Vermont schools for 37 years as a classroom teacher, principal and superintendent. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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