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Holcombe Short on Evidence for Voucher Attack

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Fair Game is Seven Days’ weekly political column.
TIM NEWCOMB
  • Tim Newcomb

Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is having a hard time backing up her biggest attack line against Republican Gov. Phil Scott. In her July 16 announcement that she's running for governor, she repeatedly accused Scott of advocating for a statewide school voucher program.

"Voucher" is a hot-button word, evoking Republican efforts nationwide to shift public dollars to private schools under the banner of "school choice." Vermont has a limited voucher program for districts that don't offer the full K-12 grade range. But there is no evidence that Scott has advocated for a statewide voucher program, and his spokesperson Ethan Latour called Holcombe's claim "completely false and unsubstantiated."

This week, Holcombe declined to comment on the record about her claim. Instead, she cited an opinion piece she wrote in January outlining her view of the administration's record on vouchers. She also pointed to a January paper by Education Secretary Dan French exploring the concept of one single statewide school district. That document, Designing Our Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Vermont's Education System, states that "Students would have statewide school choice among all the public schools, technical centers, and non-sectarian independent schools approved by the Agency."

That seems to show French's interest in statewide vouchers. But the introduction to Designing Our Future describes it as an ongoing "visioning exercise ... to begin to imagine the design of a modern education system." The single-district concept was chosen "as an example of the most extreme simplification possible" in order to evaluate the potential benefits of such a system, according to the document.

None of that sounds like a concrete policy proposal, let alone one endorsed by Scott.

In a written statement provided to Seven Days, Holcombe cited the March 20 meeting of the State Board of Education, when French gave a presentation about the Designing Our Future memo. Holcombe viewed this as an attempt to advance the concept into reality.

Education agency spokesperson Ted Fisher demurs. "The March 20 presentation to the State Board was on the existing written exercise and not a policy proposal of any kind," he wrote in an emailed statement. After that meeting, French's visioning exercise, and the document, have evolved. (Every page is stamped "DRAFT" in huge green capital letters.)

Holcombe sees a broader trend consistent with her own experience in Scott's cabinet, which ended when she submitted her resignation in March 2018. "As the Secretary of Education, I spoke weekly with the heads of Gov. Scott's administration and they made clear that their priority was protecting and expanding private school vouchers," Holcombe wrote in her emailed statement to Seven Days. "That is a key reason why I resigned."

That would indicate a push toward vouchers by the administration — but not a fleshed-out plan to establish statewide choice. And we only have Holcombe's word for this. She was not willing to comment beyond her written statement or provide any documentation of internal policy discussions. That may be a commendable adherence to the strictures of executive privilege, but it doesn't help establish the truth of her claim.

In order to defeat Scott, Holcombe has to identify exploitable weaknesses in the popular incumbent's record. She has made a strong charge against Scott but so far has failed to provide convincing evidence to back it up. On top of that, she ducked an opportunity to defend herself on the record — instead referring to an opinion piece she wrote months ago.

This might be an acceptable approach for a top government official: Be careful with your words and your facts, and steer clear of entanglements with the media. But it's not how a political candidacy works. As long as she's running for governor, she'll have to respond to queries from reporters and voters. And when she makes a claim, she'd best be prepared to answer the inevitable questions.

Youth Is Not Served

Taylor Dobbs is leaving his home state.

Dobbs, who resigned in July as Statehouse reporter for Seven Days, is moving to North Carolina with his wife, Tori, after years of trying to make it financially in Vermont.

"I just got priced out of Burlington," the 29-year-old Dobbs said. "I'm a public service journalist. Tori is in education. If you can't keep these two people in Vermont, you're not solving the demographic crisis. It's only going to get worse."

Statistics show that the pair are part of a trend. One of the key factors in Vermont's demographic challenge is a heavy net outflow of working adults in their early to mid-twenties. According to Internal Revenue Service figures compiled by State Auditor Doug Hoffer for a 2018 review of state economic policy, Vermont saw an average annual net outflow of 9.5 percent among tax filers under age 26 in the five-year period between 2011 and 2016.

It's a special problem for young adults. Hoffer cited IRS figures for the years 2014 to 2016 that show Vermont suffered only slight losses among filers between 26 and 34. For those between 35 and 54, Vermont actually enjoyed a net inflow of 13 percent.

What makes it specifically tough for young people in Vermont?

The short answer is "money" — a vicious circle of high tuition, student debt and housing costs, especially in the Burlington area. In the face of financial pressure, many choose to go where living costs are lower and opportunities more ample.

"I'm an expert in young people fleeing Vermont," said 2018 state Senate candidate Val Carzello, who works at the University of Vermont's Howe Library. "I watch grad class after grad class fleeing because of the cost of living."

Ingrid Peterson, director of career education at Saint Michael's College, cites the high cost of higher education. "The vast majority of our students have taken loans," Peterson said. "If they didn't have to worry about student loans, we wouldn't be having this conversation."

According to the College Board, Vermont ranked 49th in the nation in per-student higher education spending in 2016-17. The only state ranked lower? New Hampshire. And wouldn't you know it, our neighbor has the same problem with tax filers under 26. Vermont's average loss of 9.5 percent per year is virtually identical to New Hampshire's 9.3 percent. (This also belies the assertion that Vermont's taxes are too high, since notoriously low-tax New Hampshire has the same problem with retaining its young people.)

A meaningful increase in aid to colleges and universities would cost serious money. As would any other major affordability measure, such as loan forgiveness for those who commit to staying in Vermont or a major new investment in affordable homes and rental properties.

If Burlington is too pricey, why don't young folks look elsewhere in Vermont? Inconsistent broadband and cell service is a big factor.

In addition, many young people want to live where there's an active social scene. "Students only consider Burlington," said Pamela Gardner, director of UVM's Career Center. "Students choose to go where they can find a job they really want and a vibrant community where they can make friends."

As an advocate on substance-use issues, 27-year-old Burlington resident Scott Pavek has been a frequent presence at the Statehouse. He isn't impressed with Vermont's efforts to ease the plight of young people. "I don't know what they're doing for us," he said. "I haven't seen great ideas that even take a bite of the apple. They're identifying problems, but I'm not hearing many solutions."

State officials' reluctance to tackle the big — and expensive — issues has left Vermont with piecemeal policies. They're low cost, but low upside. Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling talks of efforts to better publicize opportunities in all areas of Vermont, an Agency of Education initiative to guide high school students into careers and the administration's desire to reform the Act 250 permitting process to foster development within towns and cities. He acknowledged that this is all a "long play" that will take "a decade or more" to bear fruit.

The state's incremental initiatives pale in comparison to the immediate needs of young people making real-time decisions about their futures. "We were talking about buying a house as recently as earlier this year," Dobbs said.

But instead of building their savings toward a down payment, they found themselves losing ground financially. And now, they're leaving. They couldn't wait for "long plays" to come through.

Media Notes

Since the early days of Vermont Public Radio, daily commentaries have been a staple of its programming. The series has been an outlet for Vermonters to opine about issues and ideas. Fostering dialogue, I guess you could say. In reality, the format had gotten a little stale. Participants were pretty much limited to a certain kind of Vermonter: literate, comfortable, upper- or upper-middle-class, and almost exclusively white.

Well, the regular commentaries are no more. They've been deep-sixed, along with "VPR Café," a weekly look at Vermont's food and dining scene, and "Dorothy's List," a series about children's books.

The reductions are part of what VPR calls "a visionary plan to expand and diversify our coverage" including an expansion of its reporting capacity. The moves come in response to an internal review of all VPR's news programming and last year's Tell Me More Tour, whose purpose was to gather feedback from listeners statewide.

The message received: "There's increasingly a lack of reporting coming out of Vermont," said Scott Finn, VPR's president and CEO. He cited U.S. Department of Labor figures that show a 40 percent decline in TV, radio and print news staffers in Vermont between 1997 and 2017. "There's this need, and people want us to do something about it," he added.

Which means devoting more effort to news coverage and trying to cover all of Vermont. Finn said that commentary producer Betty Smith-Mastaler will shift to covering arts and culture, especially in the Upper Valley area. Amy Kolb Noyes, who produced "Dorothy's List," has received a fellowship from the Education Writers Association to report on issues facing small colleges in Vermont.

Finn promises more developments in the coming months, more "boots on the ground" to try to make up for the decline of most traditional news outlets — and efforts to bring more diversity to VPR's programming. This is a welcome development; VPR is a real power in Vermont's media landscape. Relative to other news organizations, it has abundant resources to draw on. The more it can do to make up for continuing declines in the news business, the better.