Connecting state and local government leaders

For Vermont’s Public Schools, How Small Is Too Small?

The Vermont State House in Montpelier

The Vermont State House in Montpelier jiawangkun / Shuttersock.com

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

State officials are trying to curb the high costs of rural school systems in a state with a deep history of community identity.

MONTPELIER, Vt. — For the first time in more than 100 years, Vermont this year is beginning a sweeping restructuring of its elementary and secondary school system.

A bill signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin last month seeks to rein in the high costs of a largely rural system whose administrative structure has not been reduced despite steep declines in the students it serves. Efficiencies could result in lower property taxes and free up resources to address two pressing problems: the academic struggles of low-income students, and the disturbing disinclination among high school seniors to pursue post-secondary education.

Since 1997, Vermont has seen K-12 enrollment decline by 21,000 students, or 20 percent, to a level of just 82,000 today. Per-pupil spending exceeds $16,000, among the highest in the nation, according to federal statistics. That’s in part because a lot of teachers are required to teach small classes in rural schools, and in part because a lot of administrators are needed to run an inefficient system.

So now there are 10 teachers and administrators for every 47 students. Some teachers teach in classes with only five or six students. Statewide, the teacher-student ratio is 1 to 12, low by comparison to more urban states. Teachers aren’t particularly well paid, and turnover is high.

Problems caused by “the dramatic decline in our school-age population” are most acute in rural areas, said Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe in a recent interview. “Cities like Burlington are stable, but in teachers in rural school districts are teaching 50-70 percent fewer students—with the same staffing and overhead levels.”

House Speaker Shap Smith

Underlying the drive for greater efficiency is restiveness among Vermont’s property taxpayers. “Property taxes are a perpetual concern in the state of Vermont, and continue to be,” said House Speaker Shap Smith, who was an important player in bringing the law to the governor’s desk. Paying taxes wasn’t as painful when property values were on the rise, he observed, but stagnation in values has aggravated voters—who also don’t see improvement in education outcomes.

Still, national rankings put the quality of Vermont’s K-12 education among the highest in the nation. And its success in seeing nearly nine in 10 high school students through to graduation is a source of pride among the state’s educational leaders.

Defining the Challenge

Shumlin, who has just announced that he will not run for a fourth two-year term, has a well-deserved reputation for frank talk about the state’s problems. Last year, he captured the attention of the national media by devoting the entirety of his state-of-the-state message to the heroin epidemic afflicting Vermont. And in this year’s budget address, he was blunt and to-the-point about the state’s educational shortcomings:

There may be nothing more important to our future prosperity than providing a quality education for all our children. Yet today, Vermonters feel tapped out trying to meet that goal. There is no mystery why: While the number of students in our schools plummets, our property taxes skyrocket, and our property values and incomes stagnate . . . While our public schools receive deserved praise, the quality of education varies greatly across the state, and we are not making progress where we need it the most: engaging our kids living in poverty to excel in school and seek education beyond high school.

Vermont has diligently pursued progressive educational policies over the past two decades, said Jeff Francis, longtime executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association. The drive picked up steam after the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the state must provide “substantially equal access” to education for all students, regardless of where they reside. In reaction, the legislature adopted a unique, statewide property tax system to ensure that all school districts, no matter how small, received per-pupil amounts the state deemed sufficient to provide a good education.

While minimum amounts were set, towns could still decide to add taxation beyond the statewide levy to support additional services, say foreign languages or music, that would otherwise be unaffordable.

During the past eight years, Francis said, the state has crafted new laws to provide universal access to early education, individualized learning plans for students, and access to college courses during high school.

In 2011, Vermont also adopted the Common Core educational standards, first developed by a governors’ task force, but later rejected by many Republican governors after the Obama administration embraced such standards as part of its Race to the Top grant program.

The state also has displayed its independence in its reaction to the No Child Left Behind program enacted in 2001. The law’s mandate that every student should test at grade level was viewed as unattainable in many states. Most of them applied for waivers that carried with them the obligation for regular testing and evaluation of teachers on the basis of improvement in their students' performance.

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe (Photo by Jeb Wallace Brodeur)

Vermont was among a handful of states that did not apply for waivers. Without the testing regimen, the federal government characterized all of the state’s schools as “low-performing.” That hasn’t bothered top officials, including Holcombe. Without the threat of losing their jobs because of a poorly designed testing system, teachers are freed to pursue the higher attainment standards of the Common Core, she said.

Holcombe pokes fun at the NCLB standards, noting that a test question asks 10th-graders to define Cavilieri’s Principle. “I have yet to find a grown-up who can explain it,” she said, “so the testing is certainly not perfect.”

Costs and Efficiency

Vermont’s complex educational system includes 270 local schools, 53 high schools, 60 “supervisory unions” helping to administer the system, and a high degree of local control over budgets and tax rates that govern the spending.

Rep. David Sharpe

Act 46, the education reform law, aims to streamline governance in the K-12 system, explained Rep. David Sharpe, chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, in a recent interview. 

Using his own Assembly district as an example, Sharpe outlined the current system’s inefficiency.

Five towns he represents—Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro—each have elementary schools serving about 100 students. Each school has an elected board, and a sixth board oversees the regional Mount Abraham High School. There’s also a seventh board, comprised of representatives of the other six, overseeing a supervisory union.

Unusual if not unique among the 50 states, Vermont submits the budgets of its schools to votes in the communities they serve. In Sharpe’s district this year, the Monkton and Bristol and high school budgets were voted down, leading to cuts in planned spending. They were among 22 school districts whose voters rejected budgets this year—a sign of resistance to high tax rates, said Sharpe.

But in a Starksboro town meeting, the school budget was actually increased, a decision all voters later ratified.

“So there are tensions both ways,” Sharpe observed. “There are parents and grandparents and educators who want us to spend as much as we need to spend to do a good job of educating our students, and who hate to see any reductions in staff even though we have too many staff in our buildings.”

The governance system is both inefficient and lacking in accountability, Smith and Sharpe said. The Addison North East Supervisory Union overseeing the system in Sharpe’s district assesses the five elementary schools, raising about $7 million to finance Mount Abraham High School and the union’s administrative functions. “The electorate has no access to the budget or the taxes generated by supervisory union, so they are isolated from public accountability,” Sharpe said.

The supervisory union appoints the superintendent for the system, who is required to attend at least 20 night meetings per month generated by the school boards and their committees—rendering the superintendent’s task of “educational leadership pretty untenable,” Sharpe added. “So we have a real leadership problem at the superintendent level and to a lesser extent at the principal level, because principals don’t understand if they are responsible to their local school boards or to the superintendent who hired them.”

One goal of the reform law is to reduce the number of supervisory unions. That would happen, in Sharpe’s example, if the five elementary school districts voted to merge, thus creating a single school board representing all of them and the high school that they feed. The superintendent would report only to that board, freeing up time to run the enlarged district’s business. Savings might also be found in simplification of administrative processes, and newfound ability to assign teachers and students to schools and classes that make sense.

Francis remarked that “messing with local control” of schools “was long thought to be the third rail by many politicians.” But with the state’s declining population, some school districts “serve only 25-30 children,” Francis observed. “So the question has become, how small is too small in a state with a deep history of community identity.”

Holcombe, Smith and others have made the point that very small schools don’t offer their students the range of educational opportunities available in larger schools. In a detailed presentation she made to the legislature in January, Holcombe compared science offerings at a 300-student school to those at at a school with just 80 students. In the first case, she listed 10 courses, including two Advanced Placement courses and two designed to teach technical skills. The second school was offering only three courses. Holcombe’s data also suggests that students’ performance on literacy and math tests declines somewhat in larger elementary schools.

Holcombe’s data put Vermont high school graduation rates, at 86.6 percent, in line with those of other New England states—except for Rhode Island, lagging at 79.7 percent. But only 52 percent of the state’s graduates enroll in college, lower by 6-14 percentage points than in the other five states in New England.

That’s one big source of concern among top Vermont officials, and the other is the relatively poor performance in testing of children from low-income families--those eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

“Yes, our schools perform well—if you leave out two big indicators,” said Smith, “our problems educating low-income students and the challenge of getting students to continue their studies after high school.’

Meeting the Challenge

Act 46 seeks to meet these challenges in large part by encouraging restructuring of the K-12 structure to achieve efficiencies. If the student-staff ratio could be increased from 1-4.7 to 1-5.0 that alone would result in $74 million in annual savings, state officials have calculated. The savings could be used to improve educational outcomes, especially in the low-performing cohorts, or it could go toward lowering tax rates.

The reform law lays out a four-step schedule for achieving school district mergers. Officials expect that six or seven “accelerated mergers” will be put to a vote of local districts within the next year. “Conventional” mergers will follow in cases where local educational officials need more time to study the consequences. In each of these cases, the mergers must result in a minimum daily attendance of 900 students. The law also allows school districts to propose unconventional new governance structures. And it tasks the Education Department with proposing new systems for districts that don’t move to merge with their neighbors by 2019.

In a bow to the fierce independence of local communities, educational leaders avoid saying that one objective is to close some of the smaller schools. “I don’t like to use the word ‘consolidation’ because it implies” such closures, said Sharpe. “Indeed my hope is that more smaller schools can remain open than would be the case if we hadn’t passed the law. The only things I want to close are supervisory unions.” Most if not all of the mergers will be put to a vote of affected communities.

Sharpe, Smith and Holcombe emphasize that larger districts will allow flexibility in assignments of teachers and students among schools, allow  superintendents to exercise leadership, and free up resources for low-income students and those with aspirations beyond high school.

“The reason we got it through is that the educators, who want better outcomes for the kids, were  behind it and they were a coalition with the people who wanted to bend the cost curve of running these schools with fewer students each year,” said Sharpe.

Sharpe and Smith said they’d taken lessons from the experience of Maine, which enacted a top-down consolidation of school districts beginning in 1997. The number of districts shrank from 290 to 164. But community resistance remained strong, and a study by the University of Maine showed minimal cost savings and scant educational gains. Now, more than 40 percent of Maine’s consolidated districts are in the process of reversing the consolidations, according to the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Pennsylvania State University.

With local voting on school district mergers, Vermont’s new law seeks to avoid a similar backlash. “We know that rules may work in one community but not in another,” said Holcombe. “So we have provided flexible tools, while also making it clear that we want results.”

Beyond High School

Vermont also has been addressing its goal of sending more high school graduates on to postsecondary education.

In the high schools, students are encouraged to take one or two college-level courses. And the state also has career-technical training in 18 regional high schools, where students can get a taste of disciplines ranging for nursing to software. “In rural areas, kids may not see opportunities” for these kinds of careers, Holcombe said, “but these schools point toward skills they can use. There’s a critical need for health workers, for instance.” Sharpe, a practitioner and teacher of automobile mechanics, added that cars and even tires contain a lot of computing power whose maintenance requires training beyond the high school level.

The college-admissions challenge remains steep. And Vermont’s colleges are suffering, with a four-year lag, the student population declines that are moving through the high schools. Like other states, Vermont has been reducing subventions to its universities, and tuitions have been rising. The university system “is under fiscal stress,” said Holcombe. “We should do more, but it’s hard, given demographic trends.”

Perhaps, over time, a more efficient and effective K-12 system may produce more graduates who want to go to college, offsetting some of the demographic decline.

And perhaps Vermont taxpayers will find some relief from the high taxes they pay to finance the schools. But that outcome is not assured. Given the choice between lower tax rates and preserving educational quality, voters in the past “have chosen to add a foreign language,” as Holcombe put it.

Still, Smith characterizes Act 46’s “incremental but monumental” reform as “one of most significant bills passed and signed into law in Vermont in the last 10 to 20 years.”

Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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