Walters: Scott Administration Explores Radical School System Reorg | Off Message

Walters: Scott Administration Explores Radical School System Reorg


Gov. Phil Scott, left, and Education Secretary Dan French - FILE: JOHN WALTERS
  • File: John Walters
  • Gov. Phil Scott, left, and Education Secretary Dan French
Updated at 4:13 p.m.

Gov. Phil Scott's administration is discussing a dramatic restructuring of Vermont's public schools. There is no specific proposal, but rather a planning memo that envisions sweeping change in the school system.

At this point, the memo is described as a thought experiment that may or may not lead to a specific reform proposal. Basic elements of it include a single statewide school district, statewide school choice including nonsectarian independent schools, a statewide teacher contract, an end to the Vermont Board of Education, the transfer of all public school property to the state and a thorough reform of the school funding system.

The memo promises to ensure "local participation" but would effectively end local control. School boards would be abolished in favor of four elected regional boards, each of which would hire a superintendent. Budgetary authority would flow from the superintendent to the education secretary; the regional boards would not have a say.

Parental input into their local schools would consist of Parent School Committees, which would be purely advisory in nature. first reported on the existence of the memo. Its story was based on an earlier version of the planning memo. Education Secretary Dan French provided Seven Days the latest version, which is much longer and more detailed. The full document can be viewed below.

The 32-page memo is described as a work in progress — a "wiki where additions and changes are developed through a collaborative authoring process." But its fundamental principles shape the entire process in the direction of centralizing public school governance. The document springs from the single question, “To what extent would a Greatly Simplified School District (GSSD) model create opportunities for . . .” and then refers to a "'single school district' model developed by Secretary Daniel French as an example of the most extreme simplification possible."

“Secretary French is leading a visioning process to reimagine the future structure of our education system,” Ted Fisher, an Agency of Education spokesperson, said in a written statement. “This is a strategic exercise within the Agency of Education designed to surface opportunities to create a more coherent and integrated approach to delivering education and related human services.”

The memo states that this process began in the fall of 2018 with the formation of an education policy design team consisting of top administration officials. The roster includes French as the sole education professional, three cabinet secretaries, one commissioner and "staff from the Governor's office."

The memo draws a distinction between two approaches to reform: representative strategies and design strategies. The former includes all stakeholders, while the latter is much more top-down. Key passage from the memo: "Membership on the design team is not necessarily representative, but rather determined by the ability of the chosen team members to rapidly produce a high-quality prototype ... that can then be shared broadly among various stakeholder groups for feedback and reaction."

In other words, a small group gets to develop "the essential design elements" and everybody else gets to chime in on the details.

In an interview Friday on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition, Scott distanced himself from the memo.

“I don’t think we’re ready for anything like that at this point,” the governor said of the single-district concept. “I give [French] great credit for at least bringing this up and talking about it because the way we’re doing it right now doesn’t work.”

Scott spokesperson Rebecca Kelley said in a written statement Friday that the governor had “called for creative thinking and innovative ideas to build the best education system for our kids.

“He appreciates the Secretary’s leadership to explore options for doing so, including work to engage stakeholders and partners in the process,” Kelley wrote. “We see this as part of a critically important conversation on education quality and equity, aimed at building consensus around shared goals and strategies to achieve them, but not as a proposal or legislation we’d put forward this year.”
The document itself acknowledges centralization as "a provocative idea, and politically a very challenging concept." That's putting it mildly. Act 46, the far more modest school consolidation law, has sparked community opposition across the state — not to mention lawsuits. The memo also acknowledges a high degree of "initiative fatigue" among educators, which makes this seem an inopportune time to reinvent the system. In addition, there's the political reality that Scott's Republican Party suffered significant losses in the November election, leaving him with a diminished base of support.

Some educators and lawmakers have expressed support for, or at least openness to, some of the "design elements," such as a statewide teacher contract and a shift to larger school districts. But it seems unlikely that the entire package would attract much support. If this thought experiment ever departs the realm of the mind, it seems destined for a quick death in the unforgiving environment of the political process.

Read the full document below:

Correction, January 11, 2019: An earlier version of this story overstated Gov. Scott’s support for the concept outlined in the Agency of Education memo. Additionally, that version of the story included an error about what departments fall under the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

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