The fruit of arrogance
Vermont’s state Board of Education has voted to endorse the elimination of local town school boards in favor of consolidated, “expanded districts.” The board’s resolution contends that the plan recently approved by the House Education Committee will “modernize Vermont’s educational governance system” in order to provide “all Vermont students” with an “equitable opportunity to prosper and thrive in all Vermont schools.”
Welcome to the world of education platitudes that bear no resemblance to reality and that every day obstruct actually teaching Vermont’s students in Vermont’s actual schools. The theory of education-speak is that if you sprinkle your bad ideas with words like “modernize,” “equitable,” “prosper,” and “thrive,” no one will dare disagree with you, and everyone who only casually listens will think you must be right.
By that definition of “modernize,” Vladimir Putin is modernizing Ukraine. And I’m sure Kim Jong Un would tell you he just wants his people to prosper and thrive.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not equating our representatives in Montpelier with those tyrants. But I’m tired of empty rhetoric masking decisions that every day impede efforts to improve our schools by the people who are actually in our schools. I’m tired of leaders who mouth and swallow empty words.
Consolidated school districts, for example, in no way promote equity. If by equity, you mean how much money each school has available to spend, then make some reasonable changes in the way we fund schools. Increasing the distance of the governing body from the school it governs has nothing to do with equity. It will increase administrative costs, which even supporters of consolidation now concede. It will also allow even more of education’s bandwagon snake oil miracles to be forced down the throats of local schools and communities that don’t want them.
Consolidating districts will in no way “optimize learning.” It won’t eliminate layers of bureaucracy, but will instead add layers of bureaucrats farther away from the schools they’re supposed to be governing. Consolidated schools are in no way better positioned to deliver “21st century skills.” As for being “innovative,” innovation and improvement aren’t synonyms. Innovation, which means making things new, is good only when it also makes things better.
Eliminating local boards means eliminating the power of local citizens to govern the schools their children attend. If that’s a step in the right direction, if that advances the ability of the public to govern its public schools, I’d like someone to explain how. It will also lead to closing local schools without the consent of the communities that built them and filled them with children.
Further distancing the governance of our schools from the classrooms and corridors where education happens won’t improve education. The embarrassingly unimpressive record of our state education bureaucracy in promoting and enforcing the long series of ill-conceived “reforms” they incessantly bill as “education change,” “restructuring,” and “transformation,” from portfolios to the current Common Core mandate, ought to be all the evidence anyone needs.
Supporters of the consolidation bill point to provisions that establish “advisory committees” that could offer their opinions to their town’s representative on the “expanded board.” These advisory committees, however, would have no power to make any decisions.
I’m familiar with how consulting and “working” with “stakeholders” plays out in education. I’ve been on committees like that. It’s a brilliant tactic. The people who have no power, in this case the citizens who used to elect their local school boards and whose schools we’re talking about, get to say what they think. Then the people who do have power, meaning the new, distant, “expanded” board members get to choose between two options. If they happen to agree with the “advice,” they can say they heeded the voice of the people. If they disagree, they get to ignore what they hear, proceed on the path they originally intended, but still say everyone was “at the table” and that their decision was based on the input of the people they ignored.
It’s no surprise that the state board endorsed a proposal to consolidate the power to run our schools further away from the people whose schools they are. After all, that’s precisely what the state Board of Education is. In fact, the actions of the unelected state board in this case, as in other past cases, are a perfect example of why distant boards, only marginally connected to the people they purport to represent, typically don’t promote anybody’s thriving or prospering, and why we need to oppose and reject any effort to rob local citizens and parents of the power to control the schools where their children spend their days.
If our representatives in Montpelier elect to usurp our authority over our own schools, we should remember that the next time it’s our turn to elect them.
The bill as written allows towns to decide to consolidate, unless they don’t want to consolidate, in which case they will be forced to consolidate by a state “design team.” Has that duplicitous sham become Vermont’s new standard of democracy and “equity”? Is that what now passes for government by consent of the governed?
Here’s a proposal. Let each town vote to decide whether or not it wants to disband its local board and consolidate with another town or towns. In other words, let the power to decide be more than a hypocritical pretense.
If the Legislature and governor enact the bill as written and refuse to allow us to decide how we want to govern our schools, let every select board and school board vote to instruct their town treasurers to withhold the state portion of the revenue they collect. Then our representatives in Montpelier can decide which of us they want to arrest.
I realize that’s a radical suggestion, and most likely illegal, but it’s no more radical and ought to be no more illegal than wresting control of our community schools from the communities and parents whose children attend them.
I am no radical. But defiance and outrage are the fruit of the governmental arrogance that appears to be coming our way.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.