Public education. We need a new conversation about public education and how we pay for it. One reason is that the world of work now requires very different skills for graduates who enter the work force, no longer just the “three Rs.” Now critical thinking skills, ability to work in groups, and using individual creativity are necessary. In response, there are some exciting changes in some Vermont public schools leading to proficiency standards, changing the 100-year-old school framework, where time is fixed and student learning is variable, into a framework where students become proficient regardless of how much time it takes.
A second reason is Vermont’s very high and growing dependence on the property tax to pay for public education. Many believe that the property tax is the most onerous tax that people pay, and the only one for which you can lose your home. A new look at the education fund framework is needed to understand why the underlying principle of equity is the same for the revenue side of the equation as it is for the spending side. In no other arena of state spending do we ask only whether the spending is equitable; we also ask what is the need and what are the outcomes.
In my role on the House Appropriations Committee, I have asked for and been given responsibility for the education budget where I hope to be able to ask these questions over and over in public and in direct meetings until others begin to understand that we need a new understanding, not only of what work has to be done by our local schools, but also how to arrive at a funding framework that is focused on outcomes.
The current framework has led to an us-against-them mentality that pervades much of our public discourse around public education. The whole concept of local control sets up a power struggle that cannot be won by either local school boards or the state, leaving both state and local people frustrated that they cannot seem to accomplish what they believe needs to be done to control spending or get better outcomes. In my opinion, the state has to do one of two things: either take over and run the schools (which is not about to happen for many reasons) or accept the present system for its value. Under Vermont’s Constitution, the state has the responsibility to see that all Vermont children receive an education (locals need to accept that fact) but the state does not do the work to carry out that responsibility (and the state has to accept that fact). That work is done locally all across the state. Again, in my opinion, what needs to emerge is a “mentality of a partnership” leading to our common goal.
It is entirely possible that I may have entered the Pollyanna phase of my life, believing that we can truly alter the cultural conversation about Vermont’s public education system. And it is a system, a complex system where decisions in one part of it affect outcomes at all other parts of it, where it matters in what part of the system funding lands as to whether what we spend for the whole system helps or hinders outcomes for students. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying “you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created the problem.” I have taken that to heart and realize that I am walking off the beaten path of current thinking. I need feedback from others who are frustrated with the current line of thought. I’d love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (802) 464-2150.
Happy holidays to you all.