Ed. secretary bill changes Opponents might now be on board

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BRATTLEBORO -- Supporters of a bill that would give the governor authority to name a secretary of education say changes made to the bill last week should help build support for the controversial proposal.

The Senate Education Committee on Friday added language to the bill that would give the State Board of Education more power and input when setting education policy with the new secretary.

Currently, the State Board of Education names the commissioner, who works under the board and answers to the board.

Gov. Peter Shumlin said he wants Vermont’s governor to be able to name a secretary of education, who would become a member of the governor’s cabinet.

The original House version of the bill recommended turning the state board into a largely advisory board that would have very little oversight and critics were afraid that too much power would be in the hands of the governor.

Both Windham Southeast and Windham Central supervisory unions opposed that plan and adopted letters that were sent to local lawmakers to persuade them not to support the change.

The Senate version balances the power between the governor and the state board, and critics are now lining up to support the bill which would significantly change how education policy is developed in Vermont.

David Schoales, a member of the Brattleboro School Board and of the WSESU board, said he would be much more supportive of the plan knowing that the state board would continue having a role in setting policy and working with local school boards around the state.

"This sounds like a much better plan," Schoales said Monday. "As long as the state board has oversight, I think there is greater likelihood that local school boards will be able to do what they need to do to improve outcomes. I’m sure conflicts will continue to come up, but this seems like a much better track to be on."

Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro and a member of the House Education Committee, said she had concerns with the diminished role of the state board in the House version of the bill.

Stuart said she would strongly support the Senate version, which the House Education Committee is expected to take up early in the week.

"I was one of the holdouts when this first came up, and I was not in favor of taking away some of the power of the state board," Stuart said. "I think this is really good, and I think my constituents who were concerned with this are going to be much happier."

Susan Bartlett, Shumlin’s Special Assistant, said the governor supports the Senate version of the bill that will give the State Board of Education a significant role in setting policy and working with the new secretary of education.

"We think this is a great resolution to the criticism we heard," said Bartlett. "People realized this was really going to happen, and it was a pretty significant change, so we sat down a found a way to balance everyone’s concerns."

If the current bill gets the Legislature’s approval, then Shumlin will be able to name a new secretary of education, to begin serving before Jan. 1, 2013.

Legislative counsel will have to go through all of the education statutes, to make any changes needed for the newly appointed position.

Bartlett said that will take the better part of next year.

"This will make it much easier for us to get where we want to go," said Bartlett. "This was not a conversation about us and them. It is a partnership between the governor, the secretary of education and the State Board of Education, and it’s going to allow us to really focus on how we can achieve higher standards for all of the kids in our state."

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Vermont School Boards Association Executive Director Stephen Dale also said the new bill achieves a balance between keeping local school boards engaged, while giving the governor an increased role in directing statewide initiatives.

"This will make the governor accountable, while keeping the policy making in the hands of a strong state board," said Dale. "It’s a forward looking piece of legislation and it is a new approach, but it seems like a reasonable place to me."

Dale said VSBA strongly opposed the House version, but would support the Senate version.

Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland and Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the committee heard from constituents who were concerned with the reduced role the state board of education would have.

Mullin said the Senate bill would allow the governor to name a secretary of education, while giving local communities access to education policy through the state board.

"There was concern that the House had stripped away the meat of the duty of the State Board of Education," Mullin said Monday. "We want to protect education from the huge swings in political education policy. It is our hope that a visionary and strong leader would be able to work with the state board. We hope they would be bale to develop a great relationship, and work in harmony toward a common goal."

The Senate Education Committee moved the bill on a 4-1 vote, and the bill is now headed to the Senate floor.

If it gets approval it will head back to the House committee with the changes included.

State Board of Education Chairman Stephan Morse testified in front of the Senate Education Committee last week and argued against the reduced role for the state board.

Morse said it was important to keep a strong State Board of Education involved in policy making to give local school boards and educators a way to take part in the public process.

"I think this is going to work out quite nicely," said Morse. "We were able to strengthen the bill that came out of the House and keep the board engaged in education policy. Everyone will be working together to improve student outcomes."

Department of Education Spokeswoman Jill Remick said the bill has seen a host of changes since the beginning of the legislative session.

When the House passed the bill earlier this year that stripped most of the power from the state board, critics thought it would be better to have no board at all, than to have one with very little authority.

"In earlier versions the state board was advisory, and we thought you might as well not even have a board if its duties were reduced," said Remick. "We still have concerns about who the secretary would answer to, but the latest version does seem to be a little closer to a compromise."

The Senate version now carves out a role for the state board to work with the education secretary.

It also returns the state board member’s terms to six years, after the House recommended reducing them to three.

Remick said there could be a conflict in the future if the secretary of education finds him or herself trapped in the middle of dispute between the governor and the state board, but she said overall, the Senate version makes the Education Department much more comfortable with supporting the creation of a governor-appointed secretary of education.

"There was a lot of concern that if you got rid of the state board there would be more a top down approach to education policy," Remick said. "People were afraid they would lose their local voice, and I think a lot of people think this latest version makes more sense. I think it moves this plan in a direction that has a lot of people much more comfortable with what the state board’s role is supposed to be."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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