For those who might not recall just how things work in Vermont politics, the Legislature meets for only four to five months per year, beginning its session just after the New Year and working fervently until late April or May. Vermont maintains the same part-time legislature that was created 200 years ago, when folks would govern in the winter and tend their fields in the other three seasons.
As the session rolls along, proposed laws can take on a life of their own, building momentum as the deadline nears for the Legislature to complete its work and head home for the summer.
One such bill is wending its way through the House right now. H.833 is a bill that would phase in school district consolidation, reducing the number of school districts in the state to fewer than 50 from the current 228. This bill is the classic example of something taking on a life of its own in the Legislature. Many have questioned the need for the bill. Last week, in an op-ed column, Rep. Ann Manwaring raised many questions about the bill. We have done so as well in this column.
Two of the biggest concerns center around the outcomes of the bill, and the lack of outcry demanding there be a reduction in school districts. A recent Castleton State College/vtdigger.org survey found less than half of Vermonters polled felt there was a need for broad school consolidation. Manwaring took it even further, saying the bill is a clear shot for a power grab by state government. Manwaring argues that rather than forcing consolidation on towns around the state and creating a top-down governance structure, the state should be fostering a more bottom-up model, where ideas that work well in one school or district can be examined to see if those same practices might work well somewhere else. Twin Valley School Board member Phil Taylor, whose district just went through a lengthy consolidation process, echoes Manwaring’s thoughts, saying a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to education doesn’t take into account differences among towns.
Why is it many legislators refuse to consider the outcomes of their actions? It’s inconceivable that the consolidation legislation would even pass committee without serious study. But that’s what happened. The plan has taken on a life of its own, and instead of seeking data that might point out the pluses and minuses of consolidation, the House Education Committee passed the bill. Instead of relying on data, , which is in short supply, legislators seemed to rely heavily on testimony. While that certainly needs to be part of the equation, it often leads to emotional appeals for or against proposed legislation. In the case of school consolidation, that seems to be wrong-headed. Data should drive a bill like this, not emotion.
Forcing consolidation on school districts isn’t necessarily what Vermonters want. In the survey, 47% said they favored some kind of school consolidation. That’s less than a majority, and the numbers are even lower when Chittenden County respondents are removed.
That same poll found that 65% of survey respondents think a change in education funding is needed.
There are many in the Legislature who will agree. But H.833 isn’t going to help that problem, as there is little acknowledgement even among supporters that there will be any cost savings with the bill.
So why is the Legislature doing little to change how the state funds education? They’re doing plenty to change how education is governed, but that seems to be disconnected from the issue of how we pay for education. Also, the idea of measuring outcomes is still foreign to many in the Legislature, especially when it comes to education funding. We find this unfortunate, and we see it as one of the reasons legislation like H.833 surfaces, which at best creates solutions to things that aren’t really problems, and at worst distracts legislators from working on the things most Vermonters really want, like reduced property taxes and an education funding system that is sustainable and understandable.
One more thing about that part-time Legislature mentioned above. Bills that don’t become law die in an election year. This is one of those years, so any legislation left over at the end of the session will have to start over again next year. Should H.833 not pass this year, which is a possibility, we can only hope that come next January, legislators drop it and focus on what a clear majority wants, changes to how the state pays for education.
Given that it’s an election year, Vermonters will have ample opportunity to remind their legislators of what they truly think is important. That opportunity will come at the ballot box in November.