Head of the Class: Did Lawmakers Politicize Vermont’s Education Chief? | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

News + Opinion » Education

Head of the Class: Did Lawmakers Politicize Vermont’s Education Chief?

by

TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

As Gov. Phil Scott prepares to appoint Vermont's next education secretary in the coming weeks, some lawmakers and education leaders are questioning anew whether the choice should lie with the governor's office.

Last week, Rep. Dave Sharpe (D-Bristol), outgoing chair of the House Education Committee, said voting in 2012 to transfer appointment authority from the State Board of Education to the governor was one of the biggest regrets of his 15 years as a lawmaker.

Longtime skeptics say the law has exposed public education to political whim, exactly as they predicted.

But the arrangement still has plenty of supporters who argue that it has brought stronger leadership to a decentralized system of public education. State Board of Education chair Krista Huling, who said she sees the merits of arguments on both sides, expects the debate to continue.

"I think what we're seeing now is a [desire to] evaluate whether Vermonters want to keep that process," she said.

It's likely no coincidence that this soul-searching is taking place at a moment when school spending is the most contentious political topic in Montpelier.

Lawmakers and the administration are deadlocked over Scott's insistence on buying down property tax rates using onetime state revenue. At a more fundamental level, the debate is about the role state government should play in controlling school spending. Scott's finance commissioner, Adam Greshin, has repeatedly said the state must manage education spending just as it does other government expenditures. Among other steps, the governor has proposed increasing student-teacher ratios.

Many in the legislature view this as an affront to the local boards that propose school budgets and the voters who approve them — a violation of the state's long-standing principle of local control.

For decades, the state board was in charge of hiring and firing the state's education commissioner who, unlike the heads of other departments, was not directly accountable to the governor. The commissioner ran the Department of Education and reported to the state board, an independent body whose members are appointed to six-year terms by the governor. The terms are staggered, which limits a governor's ability to quickly stack the board with those who share his or her views. After two years in office, Scott has appointed four of the board's 10 members.

Since at least the 1980s, Vermont governors had sought the authority to appoint the commissioner. They reasoned that the state's chief executive should have more say in public education because it is an essential government service, one paid for in part with state money.

Once-resistant lawmakers relented in 2012 at the behest of Democratic governor Peter Shumlin. They passed Act 98, upgrading the education department to an agency led by a governor-appointed secretary. The new law preserved the state board and its authority to make rules on a variety of issues — though some argued the entity would become superfluous — and stipulated that the governor choose a secretary from three candidates submitted by the board.

According to Scott's communications director, Rebecca Kelley, the governor supported the changes when he was lieutenant governor and continues to believe it was the right move because "education is the largest expenditure in state government, and it's also an incredibly important function of state government."

At first, the new system didn't seem all that different. Shumlin retained commissioner Armando Vilaseca as agency secretary for a year, then appointed Rebecca Holcombe to the post in 2014. When Scott took office in 2017, he kept Holcombe on.

The second-guessing began in earnest when Holcombe resigned unexpectedly in April over policy disagreements with the governor. In an op-ed last week — her first public statement since quitting — Holcombe criticized the governor's proposals to cut education spending, writing that "school budgets belong to districts, not the Governor."

Holcombe's departure led Sharpe to reconsider his 2012 vote. The way he sees it, Scott "pushed her out," depriving the state of a highly effective education leader. "She'd still be there with the support of the State Board of Education," the Bristol representative reasoned.

Holcombe's own take? "I think the larger issue is more about political polarization," she wrote to Seven Days. Even were the state to return appointment power to a nonpartisan board, the former secretary said, "I don't think it would matter because everything is so politicized."

One might dismiss Sharpe's objections as a symptom of that partisanship — the buyer's remorse of a Democrat now that a Republican occupies the governor's office.

But apprehension about the new system predates Scott's tenure.

Even as Shumlin pushed for the power of appointment, at least one member of his cabinet raised objections. "I lost that debate," Jeb Spaulding, Shumlin's secretary of administration, said last week.

His opinion hasn't changed. By allowing a governor to replace the education secretary at will, "you're really adding a level of volatility to the education system," Spaulding said. "It would be better to insulate it a little bit from the political system."

Critics trace the first signs of trouble to 2016, when the state board was drafting a set of rules to govern private schools. Shumlin disagreed with its approach and directed Holcombe and her staff to stop assisting the board. Ultimately, the legislature intervened to stop the rulemaking process, which remains in limbo.

The rules would have held private schools that accept public tuition money to the same standards as public schools, a step supported by the Vermont-National Education Association teachers' union. "We saw how politics got in the way," spokesman Darren Allen said last week.

To state board members, Shumlin's intervention illustrated a problem with the implementation of Act 98. The law stated that the volunteer board was entitled to adequate staff. But according to Molly Bachman, general counsel for the Agency of Education, "there's never been an appropriation that allows them to hire staff." As a result, "they rely on the agency, which answers to the governor."

Peter Peltz voted for Act 98 when he was a Democratic representative from Woodbury, but now that he serves on the state board, he's revised his opinion. Peltz thinks the lack of staff has prevented the board from acting as a "buffer" between school districts and Montpelier politics. That role may be put to the test during the next several months as the board finalizes school district mergers mandated under Act 46.

The citizen legislature also depends on Agency of Education staff for data, research and policy analysis. Holcombe raised the concern that "if a governor were to not allow the agency to support the legislature, or if the legislature dismissed the agency as partisan, the legislature would be more dependent than ever on lobbyists."

Several former and current agency employees say they've noticed a change.

"I appreciated the older system," said Bill Talbott, the longtime Agency of Education chief financial officer who retired in 2017. "I thought it gave us a little more room to do what the commissioner thought was best for public education."

When the governor became the agency's de facto boss, Talbott continued, "I think that made us pay more attention to exactly what the governor wanted, as opposed to what somebody else might have thought was better for public education."

Brad James, the agency's current education finance manager, made no secret of his concerns as lawmakers contemplated the changes. "I said, 'What this is going do is politicize education even more so than it is.' I was telling that to any representative I saw," James recalled. In his view, "That's exactly what happened."

"AOE is now in a political environment, where we used to be far more neutral," James said.

"Because we are now an agency and the secretary is part of the cabinet, I think the free flow of information to make things work smoothly has been inhibited somewhat," he said. James also suggested that it is more challenging to have open conversations with the legislature about the implications of certain policy proposals.

Another consequence of handing more power to the politicians, critics say, is a preoccupation with money at the expense of education quality. They point to this spring's battle over cutting school costs and lowering property taxes. "When you get political pressures, you don't always get what's in the best interest of students," said Sean-Marie Oller, a former state board member from Bennington.

But even some critics of the new system concede that, for better or worse, there are benefits to having the buck stop with the governor.

Referring to Scott's five-year plan to reduce school spending, Sharpe observed that the governor "has put forward a plan to cut half a billion dollars out of public education, and he owns that."

David Wolk, education commissioner from 1999 to 2001, has long thought the governor should have a more direct role in overseeing education policy. "[Schools are] far and away the most significant part of the state budget, and because of that, there ought to be accountability," Wolk said.

Recalling that as education commissioner he served "many bosses," Wolk argues that the new system creates a clearer chain of command. "The current secretary is accountable to the governor, who is accountable to the voters," he said. If voters don't like the prevailing education policy, they can vote the governor out of office.

"People will say it injects politics into it, but politics is pervasive — it's a part of life," Wolk went on. Noting that the governor appoints the secretaries of all other state agencies, he questioned why education should be any different.

Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, had a ready answer: "The difference between education and nearly every other governmental service ... is that education relies heavily on what happens at the local level." His point: Public education already has a governance structure made up of local school boards.

Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, suggested Scott's pick for secretary "will be another signal in terms of how politicized that position has become.

"The governor has basically gone all in on public education," she continued. "If he appoints a secretary that is aligned with this move toward more state control over the finances of the school districts ... then Vermonters need to decide how to hold him accountable for it."