His fights for gay marriage and against a nuclear power plant propelled him to statewide office. A devastating storm and a push for universal health care defined his first term. And a relentless rhetorical focus on job creation propelled him to another two-year stint.
But on Thursday, as Peter Shumlin took his second oath of office as Vermont's 81st governor, the Putney native adopted a new objective for his sophomore term: "to take a good education system and make it the best."
On the most traditional of days in Vermont civic life, Shumlin broke the mold of inaugural addresses — typically a potpourri of policy proposals — preferring instead to focus entirely on education. In a 38-minute speech — punctuated by plenty of applause but few standing ovations — he told assembled dignitaries that improvements in teaching and learning are essential to the state's future.
Shumlin's argument was not so much that education is vital for intellectual fulfillment or even personal advancement. Instead, his was a collectivist vision emphasizing the economic necessity of a skilled and highly trained workforce.
Businesses throughout Vermont, he said, are demanding one.
"Our employers, from border to border," Shumlin said, "are eager to find workers with the right educational skills, and they have good money to pay."
Rattling off the names of businesses in a tour of the state from Brattleboro to Bennington and Rutland to Burlington, Shumlin landed on the region he said needs skilled workers the most: the Northeast Kingdom. There, he said, the $600 million economic development project envisioned by Jay Peak owners Bill Stenger and Ari Quiros has provided "a beacon of hope, opportunity and future prosperity" — along with an aching need for qualified workers.
"I remain unfailingly optimistic about Vermont's economic future," Shumlin said. "But to ensure our success, we must embrace change in the way we both view and deliver education. The rapid change that is required of us is not optional; it will define our success or deliver our failure."
To meet this challenge, Shumlin proposed four policy prescriptions:
A redirection of $17 million from the state's Earned Income Tax Credit for low- and middle-income families to what Shumlin called "the largest single investment in early childhood education in Vermont's history."
Free — not just reduced-price — lunch for all low-income students, using, of course, "local Vermont farm-grown food."
More funding for high school students to take college classes. And a new Vermont Strong Scholars Program that would partially forgive the student debt of Vermonters who graduate with science, technology, engineering or mathematics training and remain in Vermont. Also, increased funding for state colleges and the University of Vermont by 3 percent, in order to hold tuition steady for in-state students.
Lastly, the development of Personal Learning Plans for each student to foster "a connection between school and career"; and the creation of Vermont Innovation Zones to "target training to regional needs."
That final idea found particular favor with one member of the audience: Stenger, who has promised to create some 10,000 jobs in the Northeast Kingdom — and will be looking for qualified employees.
"I liked a lot of what I heard," Stenger (pictured right) said shortly after Shumlin's speech. "What I liked the most was what he had to say about career centers and career center training. We've got three levels of students in our high schools: the college bound, the career-center trained and the other third that are not heading to college or in career centers. This program that he's talking about — accentuating the career- center activity — I think will allow [them] to really attract more of that lower third that aren't going to college and aren't in career centers."
Of course, not everybody in the audience was as enthused.
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who also was sworn in to a second term in office earlier Thursday, cited the state's $70 million budget deficit and questioned how Shumlin would fund his new proposals.
"A concern for me is where does all the money come from?" Scott (pictured below left with Shumlin) asked. "When I heard some of his initiatives, particularly around increasing spending in education, which I'm not debating whether that's good or bad. The reality is where does that money come from? When I heard 'from the education fund,' I think of the property tax. So I'm looking forward to his budget address, to see where he's pulling that money from and how he's raising the money."
That budget address, which Shumlin is scheduled to deliver on January 24, should provide many more details about precisely how the governor plans to fund his ambitious agenda. And Scott is not the only one looking forward to it.
"The devil's in the details, right?" asked Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington), who chairs the Vermont House's Progressive Caucus.
Pearson said he was excited about Shumlin's plan to invest in pre-kindergarten and higher education. But he expressed concern about the governor's "continued reluctance to raise broad-based taxes" in order to pay for such programs.
"We have a budget shortfall. We just heard of some new priorities that come with a price tag — and nearly zero mention of how to fund it," Pearson said. "To me, that suggests either some miracles are in the works or revenue projections he knows that we don't that are much rosier. Or, more likely, funding schemes that could be problematic for me."
One funding scheme Pearson said troubled him at first blush was Shumlin's proposal to redirect tax expenditures from the state's Earned Income Tax Credit to another social program benefiting low- and middle-income Vermonters.
"I need to understand it better, but I think you end up pitting one set of working people against another," Pearson said.
The Burlington Prog was joined in making that argument by his ideological opposite: House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton), who said, "The governor appears to be taking money from one group of low-income Vermonters and transferring it to others. That's concerning. We don't want to hurt somebody else to help someone out."
More problematic, in Turner's view, was Shumlin's failure to hammer home the state's financial woes.
"The biggest concern for us is, we know we already face a projected $70 million budget gap. Yet here we are going to start new programs," Turner said. "There was no talk of tough times."