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Press Release

    Vermont Education Report, August 14

    08/14/2006

    In this issue:

     
    1.      Answering Commissioner Cate’s call for debate
    2.      61 Vermont schools fail to meet No Child Left Behind Yearly Progress standards
    3.      A look at the Early Ed Summer Study Committee  
    4.      Governor appoints new member to State Board of Ed
    5.      Headlines in Education
     
    Answering Commissioner Cate’s Call for Debate:
    Real education reform can solve many problems.
     

    Last issue, the FreedomWorks/Vermont Education Report outlined Education Commissioner Richard Cate’s call for a statewide debate about how to reform Vermont’s broken public education system. He asks us all to consider, “what might make sense if there were no education system currently in place…. [And] not to dismiss these ideas just because you believe the current reality would make it too difficult to change.”

    Here are some inspirational stories from our neighbors to the east and to the north that Vermont can learn from and improve upon. 

    In an August 4 editorial, the New Hampshire Union Leader tells the story of Seacoast Charter School. “This is a public elementary school that provides a rigorous curriculum and emphasizes the arts. It even teaches Shakespeare. Too tough for grade-schoolers? A lot of parents don’t think so. The school has a waiting list. What it does not have is a lot of money. Seacoast Charter provided its highly sought product for an average cost of $6,500 per pupil this past academic year. The average per pupil cost for a New Hampshire public school is $11,200. Seacoast Charter exposes that lie [that the state inadequately funds public schools.] Schools don’t need more money. They need to spend money more effectively.” And, it can be done, given the proper incentives.

    What are the proper incentives? Here we can look to Edmonton, Canada, for inspiration.

    Edmonton, recently revolutionized its education system to incorporate the following basic principles: 1) Money follows the child (a weighted ADM amount attached to each according to a screening to determine each individual child’s needs) to the public school parents choose, 2) each school is given the power to define its own academic focus and educational philosophy, and 3) 90% of public dollars are given directly to the schools to manage. 

    This system has worked so well that many private schools have opted to join Edmonton’s public system, and, to quote Edmonton’s former superintendent, Angus McBeth, “The culture of Edmonton’s schools [now] focuses relentlessly on the educational achievement of its students.” Schools that don’t or can’t compete go out of business.

    This may sound harsh at first blush, but in Vermont today, with the demographic decline in school aged children, many small schools are threatened with closure or consolidation as it is. Wouldn’t it be less “harsh” to allow these small rural schools, which many communities take great pride in, a chance to survive by giving them the power to attract more resources by creating a better educational opportunity for our kids? 

    If Vermont adopted a system like Edmonton’s, we could provide each community with genuine local control – near total control at the school level -- over the kind of education parents and communities decide they want for their children. As such we could eliminate all of Vermont’s bureaucratic school districts and supervisory unions and replace them with a single, state-wide department with a simpler oversight mission. This could solve the staffing, confusion, and burn-out problems Commissioner Cate cites, and free up considerable dollars to put back in the classroom where they belong.

    By having public schools compete for students, and therefore money, with the freedom to define their own curricula, we would unleash the creativity necessary to meet the diverse needs of a diverse population. Waldorf, Montessori, traditional, parochial, co-ed, single-sex schools would all be able to contribute their successful teaching philosophies to the public good, and give every child a chance to find a public education experience that fits his or her needs and personality. Quality and results would become paramount; test scores and real learning would improve. 

    But what about incentives to control costs?

    If we evolved Vermont’s statewide property tax to fund entirely the “Every Child’s Scholarship Program (or some such name)” we could make the legislature directly and entirely accountable for the cost of education and the taxes that fund it. This transparency, of course, would provide a powerful incentive for Montpelier to keep total costs reasonable and under control. 

    At the local/per/pupil level, here FW/VER offers a unique and exciting twist on Edmonton’s plan that Vermont could pioneer: If any school can provide a quality education for less than the state weighted ADM amount, the remaining money would be placed in an individual college savings trust account for the child to be turned over to the student after graduation – but for college tuition only. That means that if the student’s weighed ADM were $10,000 (saving Vermont taxpayers as much as $3777 per pupil), and the school could provide a superior education for $6500, taking the real-world number from New Hampshire, that means the child could sock away $3500 for college. Imagine doing that, plus interest, for 13 years of K-12 schooling!

    This system would create a several positive incentives at every level: 1) to keep individual school cost low as the size of tuition payback for college would become a source of competitive advantage, 2) to encourage parents to shop for lowest cost education, but 3) to ensure that high quality and educational results are sought out by parents and provided by schools. After all, if the school fails to prepare the child for college (within a reasonable amount of time after graduation from high school), the trust money would go away, and be returned to the general education fund. 4) Students will have an incentive to excel, the chance to find the best environment to do so, and the security of knowing their hard work will lead to bigger and better opportunities in life. 

    Lastly, the chance to choose the kind of school that’s best for your child and save for college through the public K-12 system would create for Vermont a unique and powerful selling point nation wide. This would be an opportunity different and powerful enough to attract many young parents to our state, and help reverse the current trend of young people abandoning Vermont, and stem the demographic crisis of an aging population that threatens Vermont today. 

    Okay. We’ve taken Commissioner Cate up on his terms. Back to reality…. What do our teachers’ unions say?
     
    The commissioner has asked for ideas. Here is his email: richardcate@education.state.vt.us 
     
    Twenty-two percent of Vermont’s public schools fail to meet No Child Left Behind Yearly Progress standards

    The Vermont Department of Education released results on Thursday, August 3, showing that 61 (twenty-two percent) of the state's public schools failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals under No Child Left Behind, 47 of which failed to do so for the first time. This is up from only 3 percent in 2005. 

    Two constant complaints from the public school establishment about NCLB are that the mandated goals have not been backed up with adequate funding, and that the testing requirements force teachers to “teach to the test” at the expense of other subjects.

    Consider though, that since President Bush signed NCLB in 2002, total k-12 education spending in Vermont has increased by $364,717,966 – a 40% increase -- while the total number of k-12 students dropped by nearly 10%. With this amount of money flowing into the system, how can anything be fairly considered “unfunded.” 

    The incentive that NCLB creates to teach to the test is a legitimate concern. (Is this why we are now hearing stories about how kids don’t know anything about history?) But, if teachers are, indeed, sacrificing arts, sports, language, etc. in order to “teach to the test,” what does that say about the effectiveness of their teaching when so many kids are failing the test they claim to be teaching to?

    The blame for failure is being laid at the feet of poor families and learning disabled children. If these demographic groups are the genuinely the ones having trouble succeeding, maybe it’s time to ask if we have created a system that is incapable of meeting these kids’ and their families’ needs, and begin to offer them real alternatives to the system in which they are clearly not thriving.

    Related: For full results, visit the Vermont Education Department at www.state.vt.us/educ/ and click on the "What's New" link. 

    Universal Preschool study committee packed with pro-u-pre-k ringers.

     

    Should Vermont expand the K-12 public school system to include two years of taxpayer financed preschool for all 3 & 4 year olds regardless of special or financial need? The debate has been raging fiercely for over a year.

    The 2006 legislative session was marked by the State Board of Education’s Ad Hoc Committee on Early Education concluding that Vermont should not pursue U-Pre-K as a policy, citing prohibitively high costs and a lack proven benefits for mainstream 3 & 4 year olds. Immediately -- literally within minutes -- following the Ad Hoc Committee’s report, Senate Education Committee Chairman Don Collins (D-Franklin) dropped all attempts to pass S.132, the early childhood education bill. Instead, Senate Ed switched gears concocting S.314, a bill requiring… yet another study on the same subject! 

    S.314 is supposed to determine the cost/benefits of implementing in U-Pre-K in Vermont, a detailed look at what the program might look like, and if it’s a good idea at all. (Click here to see the bill as enacted into law: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/legdoc.cfm?URL=/docs/2006/acts/ACT186.HTM)

    However, given the legislative appointments made to the study committee, the goal appears to be an engineered conclusion different from the one the State Board came to, while pushing the controversial issue beyond the November election. The study committee is scheduled to report its findings in January, 2007.

    So, who’s who on the U-Pre-K study committee? 

    According to the law, the senate sends three members to the committee, not all of the same party. The first is Sen. Jim Condos (D-Chittenden), lead sponsor of S.132 and 166, the original early ed bill, and arguably the most vocal and stubborn supporter of these programs in Montpelier. The second is Sen. Don Collins (D-Franklin), a former public school superintendent almost equally as committed to capturing Vermont’s toddlers for the public school system as is Condos. Both senators have strong ties to the teachers’ Union, and have been fighting hard for full, legislative implementation of these programs since 2004. Sen. Collins inspired and Sen. Condos wrote the original version of S.314, which “studied” only how to implement U-Pre-K in Vermont -- nothing at all about determining the costs to taxpayers or benefits for children.

    It is safe to say that both of these Senators minds’ are more than made up. They, along with Education Commissioner Richard Cate, a study committee member designated directly by law and who is an outspoken advocate in favor of universal preschool, will form a powerful triumvirate pushing for a “conclusion” that will facilitate passage of an S.166 or S.132 type bill 2007. 

    The logical choice for balance on the senate side was Sen. Wendy Wilton (R-Rutland) who has been highly engaged in this issue as a supporter of private childcare providers, and who asked to serve on the committee. Wilton would have been a fair appointment since a seat allocated for an actual private provider was dropped from the committee altogether. (As it is now, Vermont’s 400-500 private providers who care for 22,000 Vermont children have no seat or say in this debate about early education. This is outrageous.) Wilton’s request was denied, however, and Sen. Bill Doyle (R-Washington), who has tended to support universal preschool, was offered the seat. Sen. Doyle declined. So, senator Wilton asked again. Again the answer was no. The final senate slot went Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex-Orleans)… who happens to be the only Republican co-sponsor of the original S.132.

    From the House, the Democrat appointees are Tim Jerman (D-Essex) and Denise Barnard (D-Richmond). Though these two members of the House Education Committee appear to be more open minded choices than their senate counterparts, based on their votes and positions taken in committee (note: I personally attended nearly all the House Education Committee hearings on S.314) and their “No” votes on the Branagan U-Pre-K moratorium amendment to S.314, these two clearly lean in favor universal preschool. Beyond that, the fact that Jerman and Barnard are both freshmen legislators leads one to wonder if they would have the confidence to buck the party line or their senior committee members even if they felt the inclination to do so. Odds are they will be loyal soldiers for Condos and Collins. 

    The Republican House appointee is Duncan Kilmartin (R-Newport). Kilmartin supported the Branagan moratorium amendment. He is the one legislative member likely to question a host of false presumptions about the efficacy of Universal Preschool. He will get support from Governor Douglas’ one lone appointment to the Committee, Chris Robbins, named as a representative from the business community. Chris Robbins is also a member of the State Board of Education and served on the Ad Hoc Committee on Early Education. The final member of the committee is the Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families, Steve Dale. His positions on this issue are unknown to FW-VER.

    Vermonters deserve an honest debate over early education policy. But this committee, as it has been constructed, is not likely to give them one without significant attention and pressure from voters. 

    Early Education Summer Study Committee Members
    Sen. Jim Condos -- jcondos@leg.state.vt.us
    Sen. Donald Collins -- dcollins@leg.state.vt.us
    Sen. Vince Illuzzi -- villuzzi@leg.state.vt.us
    Commissioner Richard Cate -- richardcate@education.state.vt.us
    Commissioner Steve Dale -- steve.dale@dcf.state.vt.us
    From the Governor’s office, Tuesday, July 25, 2006, Contact: Jason Gibbs

    Governor Appoints Shrewsbury Student to State Board of Education

    Montpelier, Vt.—Governor Jim Douglas today announced the appointment of Mill River Union High School student Jessica Bullock as the newest student member of the State Board of Education.

    Governor Douglas said that once again this year, dozens of Vermont’s best and brightest students applied to serve on the Board, but Jessica’s confidence, motivation and maturity set her apart.

    “Jessica is looking forward to her role on the Board as a voice for Vermont students across the state,” the Governor said.

    In her application, Bullock wrote that “I feel my motivation to create change and insight into the student mentality…will make me a valuable attribute to the State Board.  My main reason for applying to the State Board of Education is to find a way to help motivate students to achieve their academic potential.”

    Bullock boasts an impressive student resume.  She has served as a student council member since 2004 and as vice president since 2005.  She is an avid soccer player, playing for both the Mill River varsity team, and for the Rutland County Soccer Club, where she has served as team captain in both 2004 and 2006.  Bullock also is heavily involved in local theater productions, works at a local bookshop, is active in the Mount Holly Baptist church and participated in the Yale Model United Nations this past year.

    Governor Douglas noted, “Jessica’s leadership roles in both the school setting, and in her extracurricular activities, will serve her well on the Board.  She brings a wide range of personal experiences to the table, and has clearly demonstrated that she is capable of making a positive impact on whatever environment she inhabits.” 

    Bullock, a student of Spanish and French, has also expressed particular interest in the development of stronger world language curriculums in Vermont schools.  This is a priority the State Board shares, and it is in the process of developing a plan to strengthen world language and international education instruction in school curriculums statewide. 

    The State Board of Education, which supervises and manages the Vermont Department of Education and the public school system, consists of eight adult and two student members.  Student members are appointed to two-year terms. Matthew Francis of Hinesburg, appointed by Douglas in 2005, will become the ranking student on the board, replacing outgoing member Lindy Caslin of Bennington. 

    Headlines in Education

    Education Myths By Jay Greene 

    This is a terrific article outlining in detail several phantom issues clouding the path to real education reform. The Money Myth, The Teacher Pay Myth, The Class Size Myth, The Certification Myth, and the truth about vouchers. 

    Jay Greene is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Education Myths, from which this essay is adapted.