Education Policy Summit

Today I traveled to Norwich University to take part in a Vermont education summit hosted by Governor Scott. Anytime government officials convene a policy “summit” there are mixed views as to its usefulness. A similar 2014 summit led to the enactment of Act 46, Vermont’s school unification law. While some have commented that the summit was held too late in the year to give stakeholders enough time to coalesce around changes to our education system, I appreciated this opportunity to meet with education policy makers from across the state. Below are some observations and takeaways.

The Governor convened education policy leaders at Norwich University on December 18

At the summit, the interconnectedness of Vermont’s education system and our workforce was described at length. This topic has been a subject of extensive review in the House education committee, on which I serve.

As a high school dropout, I am very supportive of policies to maximize how education is delivered, assuming that those changes are additive and contribute to new opportunities for learners. Internships, flexible options for learners, and career and technical education are a few areas I think we need to advance if want more students to succeed in the classroom and transfer those skills to postsecondary training or the workplace.

“Career and college readiness means life readiness” was a theme frequently put forward throughout the gathering. The Agency of Education warmly embraced “dual enrollment” and “flexible pathways.” These initiatives were passed several years ago to provide opportunities for more Vermont students to pursue postsecondary education while in school. While data shows a general increase in student utilization of these initiatives, a stubborn trend has appeared that suggests female students are outpacing their male counterparts in continuing their education into postsecondary education.

Generally speaking, dual enrollment appears to be having a positive impact on student learning. In 2013 6% of students who participated in a dual enrollment class went on to college. By 2016 the number had risen to 32%. This data is somewhat surprising given that the percentage of graduates who have taken college-level courses has remained relatively flat (around 55%) for several years. When the education committee reconvenes in 2018, I plan to ask the Agency of Education for more extensive data to understand the trend.

Later in the day, there was extensive discussion about career and technical education programs. It was noted that the education philosophy underlying career and technical education has changed. Unlike past practices where technical skills were taught with less of an emphasis on general academics, recent theories of delivering career and technical education have incorporated a philosophy that core academic skills should be an integral part of instruction. Policy makers from the Agency of Education strongly advocated for this approach.

It was further noted that “career pathways” are not limited to use in classrooms or K-12 settings. One presenter explained that transferable skills would be applicable, and useful, throughout an individual’s lifetime. It was suggested that technical education and career pathways might be equally useful for adults as for K-12 populations. I support this approach and look forward to discussing these concepts in more detail in the education committee.

More rapid buildout of effective career pathways requires a cultural change as to how we market and utilize technical education. Too many students indicate that they don’t wish to participate in career and technical education for fear of the stigma of pursuing such courses of study. This is problematic and precludes some of our brightest learners from developing critical skills for the real-world. We need to do better if we are to advance programs to support students.

Discussions about education governance followed the focus on curriculum. As a member of the South Royalton School Board said, governance is a conversation “about academic opportunity.” While Acts 46 and 49 have been met with mixed levels of support in different parts of the state, the push toward unifying school systems was reported by panelists to have led to the elimination of administrative overhead and new policy conversations. Most critically, proponents indicated that Act 46 unifications have enhanced districts’ abilities to offer robust educational opportunities to kids.

It is critically important that all education policy conversations start with the question of “how will this decision improve educational opportunities for kids?” The costs of educating Vermont kids are often in the spotlight because of the way Vermont’s system incorporates local and statewide decisions into statewide financing. This relationship sometimes blurs critically important facts. As the superintendent of the Mill River UUSD noted, innovating and combining resources can improve delivery of services to students in need. That, he said, should be the focus of policy makers. I’m hopeful we can maintain this student-centered focus as we dig into education policy in the coming session. To do otherwise would be to short–or undermine–the best workforce development tool we have (public education).

One of the hot topics heading into this legislative session is whether Vermont’s statewide personnel/teacher ratio is too high. Recently, the Governor stated that the state needs to move from a 4:1 statewide personnel to something more akin to a 5:1 ratio. This statement was met with mixed feedback. Some pointed out that 5:1 would still be far more permissive than many other areas and states. Others noted that it wasn’t clear what type of personnel the Governor was using in his count, and that mandating ratios would run afoul of local decisions made by citizens and school boards in their communities.

While unsustainable education spending decisions in parts of the state are certainly a challenge that is driving up the costs, the potential impact of imposing ratios could destabilize the state’s entire budget. In the Education Committee, we have been looking broadly at staffing levels as we review ongoing unifications of school districts around the state. Unifications remain underway, which are bringing together communities to have necessary conversations about the best way to educate our kids.

I am very concerned that schools in parts of the state can not provide adequate education because the district lacks scale and is no longer viable to be funded by the local tax base and its limited resources. That’s why unification is so important. My primary concern is for the students — if we fail to provide them a quality education with real-world skills, we set our state up for a challenging future. We need to be creative and work to make our education system the best it can be, cognizant that there are practical limits to what our residents can support.

I agree that there are parts of the state that need to get their education spending under control. I remain open minded about how we achieve the right balance, but I’m not sure the data supports mandating a ratio across the board. Imposing broad staffing caps sometimes has the artificial impact of making costs pop up in other places.

For example, as some have noted, the long-term (1990s and early-2000s) structural underfunding of the teachers’ pension system requires us to be extremely thoughtful about how we manage personnel. We currently have a plan, similar to a mortgage, to pay down our pension liabilities by 2038. Were we to eliminate staffing too rapidly with a statewide ratio, we would eliminate education personnel who are currently partners in paying down that liability (teachers make contributions to the pension funds and have significantly stepped up their percentage of contributions since the Great Recession), which would eliminate operating costs from our Education a Fund, pushing them instead to our General Fund (where we pay for past pension sins and other governmental expenditures). In other words, if a ratio were adopted and we eliminated 1/5 of our teachers in rapid fashion, we would shift a portion of the pension liability away from the employees and to taxpayers without solving the underlying problem.

Pensions are just one example of how mandated student/teacher ratios become challenging. There are a variety of other considerations, like whether we want to eliminate local control of staffing decisions, and the reality that different parts of the state may have particular staffing needs that require more or less resources.

Those are some preliminary thoughts and observations from this important conversation. I expect the General Assembly will quickly dive into these topics in more detail when we return on January 3, 2018. For now, I am excited for the opportunities to work on improving the delivery of career and technical education to Vermont students, amongst others areas.

If you have any thoughts or questions, please email me anytime. I’m available at Until then, happy holidays!