Earl Butz was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture and was famous for telling farmers to “get big or get out.” His tenure set off a frenzy of consolidation in agriculture pushing small farmers off their land and turning neighbors against each other in an everyone-for-themselves scramble for more acreage. Farming began its perilous decline from stewardship rooted in a noble love of land and community, to a business awash in chemicals, debt, and profit.
Fortunately, there has been an explosion in movements committed to reviving small scale agriculture and Vermont has been a national leader on this front. The Vermont “brand” in agriculture is an indisputable asset - conveying a small, nurturing, and innovative approach to food and community. Vermont’s political leadership from the national level on down has clearly taken notice and made important efforts to promote and protect small Vermont farmers. Our farmers have, in turn, been working synergistically with a host of other entrepreneurs to increase the number of small business opportunities in the state. This revolution has been guided by the mantra “small, local and sustainable.”
Given this success, I have to admit that I am perplexed why the obvious analogy with education seems to have escaped so many politicians in the state. How could the very same people that drive past chain stores to buy their eggs at the farmstand not see that Act 46 is repeating Butz’s error by telling school districts to get big and get out? How do they miss the irony of wanting to support local businesses and local farmers while forcing local schools to give up the very qualities that distinguish them?
The most consistent answer has been a familiar one - the cost of small and local education is high. But the answer should also be familiar - you get what you pay for. That is, just as with small scale agriculture, it is expensive to produce a quality result. But not all expenses and benefits are easy to quantify. In agribusiness, they call degraded air, soil, and water “externalities.” Those are costs that the industrial “farmer” doesn’t incur directly and thus are not built into the price. Advocates of school consolidation ignore a different set of externalities. When they trot out their economic projections they, like Butz, focus on the bottom line. They ignore the steep social price paid by communities that lose their local school board, and eventually their school. Those qualitative losses don’t fit in their spreadsheets, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
No one wants to deny Vermont students an excellent and equitable education. And no one wants to increase the financial strain on an already heavily taxed populace. But we have to do a full accounting for a fair comparison. Our lawmakers and my fellow Vermonters have to look into their hearts in addition to their wallets to decide if the mere proposition of short term savings is enough to sell our collective souls. Do we want to emulate the failures of large school districts across the country with externalities like increased dropout rates, reduced extracurricular participation, and lack of parental involvement?
Our legislators should champion the allure of Vermont’s small communities, and what makes them distinct from the suburbs of Massachusetts and New York. Instead, they seem fixated on emulating those places and degrading the unique soil in which life in the Green Mountain state is cultivated. Vermont’s educational and farming successes are hard earned - from grit, sacrifice and ingenuity. Those are the qualities we should propagate rather than the false promise of “get big or get out” solutions.