Little will change because of Act 46

The sweeping education-reform legislation changes the structure of our local school governance. What it doesn’t address is telling.

BRATTLEBORO — As far as I can see, Act 46 - which reforms education funding, spending, and governance - is not going to have any measurable impact on the quality of education we provide to our children or, by extension, their lives thereafter.

The act will result in some positives (most of which are negligible) and negatives (which are not quite as negligible and could be overcome, but won't be).

The driving force behind Act 46 is to hold down school taxes by reducing the per-pupil cost of education. This does not mean we will see lower education tax rates. An expectation of a lower tax rate will only prove disappointing and frustrating.

We will, however, be persuaded to agree that fewer buildings, higher pupil-to-teacher ratios, and lower administrative costs must add up to more efficient operations.

In the end, we will sigh and shrug and accept that the act is beneficial because the cost after consolidation must certainly be less than it would have been without consolidation.

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I haven't come across any evidence, hard or anecdotal, that kids who have gone through the Brattleboro public-education system do any better or worse in life than kids from comparable public schools and communities.

It's true that Brattleboro has about the lowest average household income in the state, but that's more a function of weak municipal leadership than school failures.

In decades long gone by, our civic disinterest would have been considered a failure of local education, as good citizenship was typically the top priority in public schools. This was as true in Brattleboro as it was around the country.

However, since World War II, that has slowly been replaced with the idea that public schools should train a labor force for current major corporate or industrial needs.

Another reason to predict no qualitative change in education following consolidation: administration for the consolidated district will change little or none.

Paraphrasing Einstein's famous dictum: doing things the same way will get the same results. Among other responsibilities, the administration hires, observes, and evaluates the teachers. The consolidation agreement will have nothing to say about that process.

Nevertheless, the quality of education almost exactly reflects how well the teachers teach. It has very little to do with programs and the multitude of bells and whistles that money can buy. There are good teachers in the Brattleboro system and some not so good, just as there will be after consolidation. There is nothing in Act 46 that will change that.

On the other hand, there have been teachers in tiny rural schools (like the renowned Claire Oglesby in Westminster West) whose students knew, as adults, that they had better lives for having been a student.

Is that not closer to the purpose of education? This suggests that development of a culture that enables teachers to fully blossom is a far greater goal than expanding classroom size to save a few shekels. Both studies and experience are pointing a damning finger at “teaching to the test,” which at best is a misguided concept undermining modern education and undoubtedly vastly more detrimental to the future of our children than consolidation could ever impose.

It might be quite useful to include in the consolidation agreement a statement that the effort is also intended to improve the quality of education based upon measurements that would indicate progress towards this objective.

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Lastly, little or nothing will be changed by Act 46 because the draft agreement does not address the quality of the district school board.

Teachers might need a master's degree in education and periodic refresher courses to stand at the head of a classroom, but the people who choose the leadership for the entire district will be elected, as they always have been, largely for their prominence or amiability.

A school board member is not expected to know of John Locke, John Dewey, Horace Mann, Paulo Freire, Maria Montessori, A.S. Neill, or how children are taught in Finland. As in the other aspects enumerated here, the quality of school boards, or leadership in general, is not germane to legislation aiming for fiscal efficiency.

Beside rubber stamping recommendations from the superintendent and justifying the budget to the public, the only function of the school board is to oversee, on rare occasions, that educational subject matter does not violate their perception of community standards.

Although school-board membership will be weighted towards Brattleboro residents because of the town's voting power, the effectiveness of the single new district-wide board will be about the same as the current numerous town boards.

If anything, it is more apt to be somewhat less effective because its members will be more remote and thus less visible and accountable.

The reality is, when one looks at Brattleboro Union High School, whose member towns are essentially the same as the future consolidated district, there hasn't been much interest anyway in anything other than expenditures. Typical annual meetings draw about 1 percent or less of the voters. Agendas are focused, as would be expected, on questionable expenditures, dollar amounts, overall budgets, and the tax rate.

It should be noted that the draft agreement calls for the establishment in each school of an entity to be called a Leadership Council. These are strictly “advisory” committees and have no actual leadership functions if leadership is to mean decision-making responsibilities or authority of any kind.

Each council's membership will include the school principal and one board member. If it is to have even the appearance of legitimate and useful parental and community involvement, the principal and School Board member should not have a vote in what advice is to be forwarded up the line.

One silver lining is not insignificant: Consolidation is recognizing and accepting that it is too much of an economic burden to maintain a sprawling population.

The ultimate closing of small schools will convince at least a few families to abandon their rural homes, or not take one to begin with, for the benefit and convenience of their children.

Over time, the steady increase in the environmental and economic costs of transportation - whether to get kids to schools, visit friends, have heating oil delivered, get to work, make an appointment, or any of the myriad reasons that put us into cars - will force ever-greater residential consolidation just as it is now for schools.

The cost of maintaining roads, bridges, and all else required for the automobile, will be crushing. The use of fossil fuels to run motor vehicles will be sharply curtailed through higher prices and rationing.

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In short, Act 46 isn't going to make noticeable changes. A few kids will benefit from some programs and perhaps be a bit enriched from a little more diversity in their classrooms; a few kids will spend more time traveling to and from school; there will be a small decrease in employment opportunities and if the teachers' union takes advantage of the situation it could make itself a little stronger.

Maybe the school tax rate will not rise as steeply as it would have. A few rural places will suffer some weakening of their community with the closing of their school, but the options will be there, as they always have been, for strengthening or rebuilding community in a myriad of other ways.

Historical documents suggest that communities were a lot stronger in the “olden days” through the enjoyment of barn dances, fairs, suppers, churches, Granges, Main Streets, and engagement in municipal affairs, among other activities. If the school is mostly what is left of nourishment for community, then most of the spirit we speak of probably long ago drifted away.

The loss of school choice is a galling piece of the act for some, particularly Vernon. A good guess, however, is that that aggravation will fade away. The closing of Vermont Yankee will slowly restore Vernon to the town it was before there was a Yankee. The town's economic status will normalize closer to the other towns in the district and the district's schools will, to the parents of this future time, feel satisfactory.

There has also been a bit of irate expression about a lack of transparency and involvement of the public in the whole affair in general. This might be true, but it is quite in keeping with the usual level of transparency of officialdom and involvement of the public in the whole sector of civic affairs.

In any case, the act was imposed by the state and rather intentionally leaves minimal wiggle room. The towns were informed of the destination and given permission only to make minor adjustments in their respective speeds and routes.

The vital question is whether our educational system can develop adults with the ability to make the world, their country, or even our own community a better place than they found it and lead satisfying lives in the process.

A tall order.

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