Gov. Peter Shumlin’s education reforms do not promise a sweeping transformation of education, and that is a good thing. Rather, he has proposed an array of modest steps to enhance educational opportunities for Vermonters from pre-K through college and to foster improvements in needed high-tech job skills.
In using his inaugural address to focus on education, he was making good on his promise to heighten the importance of education on his agenda. Already, the position of the commissioner of education, Armando Vilaseca, has been elevated to that of cabinet secretary, answerable not to the state Education Board but to the governor.
The theme of most of Shumlin’s proposals is to open doors. Thus, he has proposed doubling the funding for the state’s dual enrollment program, which allows high school students to take college courses. He also wants to boost a program that allows high school seniors simultaneously to enroll in the first year of college. This program has been available for more than a decade, he said, but only 40 students have taken advantage of it.
At the college level, he has offered proposals to make college more affordable to Vermonters. He has proposed a 3 percent tuition increase for the University of Vermont and the Vermont State Colleges, all of it going to financial aid for Vermonters, protecting them from the tuition increase. Further, he has proposed a scholarship program to reimburse part of the tuition to Vermont students in science, technology, engineering and math if they stay in Vermont to work after graduation.
These are not budget-busting initiatives. Their aim is to help lift Vermonters to the kind of education they need to thrive in the new high-tech world that he described in detail in his speech. Numerous high-tech companies are crying out for employees, he said, and he wants Vermonters to take advantage of those opportunities.
And he wants those opportunities to be available to all Vermonters, including low-income residents whose educational performance often lags behind. That is the rationale for his most ambitious program — to provide universal pre-K education to young Vermonters.
To achieve that goal, he proposed redirecting $17 million from the state’s earned-income tax credit to programs making day care and other pre-K programs affordable. He acknowledged a hard truth: The problem of finding affordable child care is one of the main obstacles preventing low-income people from advancing in the work place.
The most controversial element of his education package may be the funding source he proposed for his pre-K program. As more and more attention is focused on what has been called a “people’s budget,” it is oddly out of step to fund a program benefiting low-income residents by cutting one of the most useful supports for low-income workers.
Sen. Tim Ashe, the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, ought to give this proposal close scrutiny. He has been a member of the Progressive Party. Certainly, a progressive approach to budgeting would look at the tax code broadly. A review of the tax breaks and exemptions now sheltering wealth could probably turn up $17 million that would be more appropriate for pre-K than cutting the income support provided by the earned income tax credit.
It is gratifying, nevertheless, that Shumlin has recognized what educators throughout the state have long recognized. Economic inequities are taking a toll on the educational prospects of a wide swath of the populace. Making child care affordable is one way of rectifying those inequities. Doing so by rectifying the larger tax system would be even better.
It is noteworthy that Congress, which made a modest stab at tax reform through the fiscal cliff bill, remains hamstrung by Republican and corporate opposition to the kinds of tax reforms that would help foster greater economic fairness and enhanced opportunity for low-income citizens. The Vermont Legislature can undertake that task at the state level, but probably not by robbing the earned-income tax credit.
Vermonters can welcome the fact that Shumlin has redirected the debate about education away from long-settled issues and toward actual educational change. Ever since the introduction of educational finance reform in the 1990s, Vermonters have spun their wheels in fruitless debate about the finance system. Shumlin acknowledged the reality that, for all its complexity, Vermont’s system is one of the fairest in the nation and that legislators may debate the issue “until the cows come home,” but he is moving on.
In doing so, Vermont may move toward productive educational changes that could lift more Vermonters toward greater achievement in school and greater prosperity in the work place.