by Peter Freyne
Before I went to bed last night, I checked the Tom Torti Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce website to see if a legislative breakfast was on for President's Day Monday morning at the Sheraton-Burlington.
"Education Costs and Quality Outcomes."
Puullleeese! I can certainly sleep in Monday morning. I don't do "education."
But then I woke up bright and early this morning, feeling pretty good in the third week of the first three-week chemo cycle, popped out of bed, got dressed and hopped in the jalopy. Got there just as the panel was starting.
Glad I did.
That's because for the first time on the education front in Vermont since I started paying attention back in the early 1980s, there's been an unusual outbreak of courage at the top.
And it's coming from both sides of the political aisle in the form of the Republican Douglas Administration's Education Commish Richard Cate (right) and the liberal Democratic Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, State Sen. Susan Bartlett (left) of Lamoille County.
What folks heard from the lips of Commissioner Cate and Senator Bartlett Monday morning were straight-forward, plain-spoken proposals on Vermont's education financing front that no Chamber breakfast has heard before from heavyweights like these.
I know I've never heard such sacred cows trashed by such "respectable" people. Here's a taste.
Said Commissioner Cate (Montpelier High School graduate):
"What I’m currently proposing is to reduce down to between 50 and 60 school districts in Vermont as a starting point, knowing you could go further if you wanted to. (Currently, there are 284 school districts in Vermont.}
"I would then eliminate the Carnegie Unit System that we’ve had in place for the past century. And it’s a system that’s been in place all over the country. And basically it says if a student sits in a chair for 120 hours in a year and gets a “D” in a course, they can progress forward.
"I would suggest, instead, that we have a competency-based system that looks at the progress of individual students, as opposed to how long they’re sitting in a particular place. Some students can go through a course in three months, some take 15 months and our system should be flexible enough to take care of their needs."
"I grew up in a small town of 600 kids in Central Vermont. I went to a two room schoolhouse. There were two of us in my class. I understand small schools. I’m just telling you it does not get us where we need to get in this day and age for kids. And, oh, by the way, it’s not economically efficient, either."
Said Sen. Bartlett:
"This past summer I had this epiphany when I realized that there is no one single person in the state of Vermont whose job it is to look at educational spending as a whole.
"That’s the equivalent of the governor not looking at the general fund budget, sending it to the legislature. We don’t look at it and it just gets passed.
"In a budget that is more than a billion dollars, no one’s job is to look at it, understand it, or have any idea about how to control it. And people make the assumption the commissioner does, [but] that’s not his job.
"And I went, no wonder nobody’s got any idea about what’s happening, because no one has ever really looked at it this way."
The Bartlett Solution?
"Okay. I believe we should have 14 school districts in the state of Vermont. Each district would have a superintendent who takes care of the educational aspects. Each district would have a chief financial officer who takes care of the finances.
"You would keep your local school boards and your local schools and your local principal would deal with the education that goes on in that building."
Health Care Reform has sucked the oxygen out of the Vermont political air for the last few years in Montpeculiar. This session it's on the backburner.
Education Reform, i.e. hiring a first-ever statewide cost-control guru and dramatically reducing the number of school districts, has a genuine window of opportunity.
The Cate-Bartlett Team looks determined to get something done.