Rebecca Holcombe: Protecting Vermont students most in need

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As Vermonters, we need to know our government will be here for us. As the state reopens, tens of thousands of Vermonters face the frightening prospect of wondering whether they will be able to feed their families, keep their homes or pay their medical bills.

The two pillars of government playing the biggest role in feeding Vermonters who've been knocked off their feet by COVID-19 are the VT National Guard and our public schools.

But last week, Governor Scott's administration turned its sights on one of these pillars again. The Scott administration returned to the failed education cuts strategy it used in 2017, and suggested the legislature force every single school district to vote again on budgets approved by voters in March.

This idea doesn't only revoke local control, it's cruel. The harm caused to communities would fall hardest on districts that serve children who live in families facing the greatest economic hardship.

The governor says this suggestion was just a "starting point." I say we must be honest about who would be harmed. In the last recession, education cuts fell hardest, with long-term consequences, on children who live in poverty and children of color.

Here is the terrible truth. While many higher earners have transitioned to working from home, by some estimates, almost 40 percent of workers in households making less than $40,000 a year have lost work or wages. Wealthier communities would likely vote to pass their budgets again, while the school districts where workers have lost their jobs or earnings would vote their budgets down. They'd do this not because they don't support their schools and love their kids, but because they are legitimately fearful of their ability to pay their property tax bills, especially when they fear foreclosure. Treating all districts the same way makes inequality worse, which will prolong our recession.

This proposal won't gain traction with the legislature, because forcing do-over votes in the middle of a pandemic and harming our most vulnerable communities is cruel. But as he does every time his administration "brainstorms" a proposal that would harm Vermont's most vulnerable — like his "vision" for a statewide voucher district — Scott follows up a few days later by backpedaling and saying it was just a conversation starter. He's done this every year of his administration, and the cumulative impact is the same as an artillery barrage: he's softening the beach for another attack on the very institutions that show up to help when bad things happen to people.

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These repeated salvos on school districts erode public trust in one of the few public institutions that is still able to provide food, mental health support, and some sense of connection to families in a moment of crisis and unprecedented chaos. This is how we begin to dismantle one of the last remaining statewide safety nets.

Consider: child abuse reports are down now, not because children are suddenly free from scary situations, but because they are out of sight of responsive adults who can connect families to support, both by bringing down family stress and reporting abuse in the terrible moments when it may be suspected.

We've been living for 40 years with a negative narrative of austerity, and it has left us more unequal, more divided, less stable, less prosperous, and less resilient. It's left our waters, soil, and air unclean. It is time to say "no" to Reagan's legacy.

Even before COVID-19, too many Vermonters felt like they were drowning economically, no matter how hard they swam. Now COVID-19 feels like a cinderblock on their backs.

Our shared future depends on making sure every Vermonter has a fair chance. We have to start by rejecting attacks on the very public institutions that serve as our ladders of opportunity and upon which the future of all Vermonters depends.

Vermont needs a Governor who believes in the pillars of our democracy — from voting to public education — and who will lead our recovery in a way that is fair to all Vermonters.

Rebecca Holcombe, a Democrat, served as Vermont secretary of education from 2014-18. She is currently running for governor. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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