Category Archives: Education

Capitol Beat 5-11-15

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Barre-Montpelier Times Argus Editor Steve Pappas and Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss the sexual assault case against Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, the last week of the session and Bernie Sanders.

Capitol Beat 4-27-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk about the developments last week in the State House, including education, health care, vaccines and gun legislation.

Senate Ed approves school district merger bill

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill intended to merge some of the state’s nearly 300 school districts.

Late Tuesday night, the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved their version of a bill that would provide financial incentives to school districts that merge voluntarily, and would force the merger of districts that do not meet criteria regarding quality and staffing ratios.

In some ways, the Senate version of the bill takes a somewhat softer approach to school district mergers than the proposal approved by House lawmakers earlier this month. While the House version calls for the creation of Pre-K-12 districts with a minimum of 1,100 students, the Senate bill offers more flexibility.

While the Senate bill calls for districts with at least 900 students — an ideal, not a mandate — it also acknowledges the variability across the state in terms of geography and student populations, and proposes a number of acceptable governance structures, including supervisory unions.

Much like Act 153 of 2010 — which has resulted in two school district mergers in five years — the Senate bill offers financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily. The bill also calls for the Agency of Education to create merger plans for districts that do not meet certain criteria, both in terms of academics and student-to-staff ratios.

While academic performance will be measured by the state’s Education Quality Standards, the student-to-staff ratio threshold will be set later.

At 4.7 to 1, Vermont’s student to staff ratio is the lowest in the country. According to the Joint Fiscal Office, having a student-to-staff ratio of 5 to 1 would result in the elimination of 1,239 full-time positions and would save the state $75.7 million.

The Senate bill also eliminates a proposal from House lawmakers to cap education spending.

While there are differences between the Senate and House proposals, there are also similarities. Both bills look to eliminates small-school grants and the hold-harmless “phantom student” provisions, unless the school is involved in a merger.

Just prior to approving the bill, the Senate Education Committee held a two-hour hearing to take testimony from the public, some of whom traveled from distant corners of the state for a chance to be heard.

“We fear this bill could eliminate our school, harm our children and destroy our community,” said Susan Edgerton, who serves on the Readsboro School Board, overseeing a small K-8 school.

David Giddings, of Readsboro, noted that while the intent of the bill is not to close small schools, the elimination of small-school grants and the hold-harmless “phantom student” provision would cause sufficient financial pressure to force the school to close.

Jon Guiffre, chairman of the Roxbury School Board, also spoke in opposition to the bill.

“Our broken education system cannot be fixed with incremental changes and half measures,” Guiffre said. “Please, let this bill die.”

The merger proposal also drew many supporters, including Brett Blanchard, principal at Fair Haven Union High School.

“We have way too many administrators, like myself. We need to make sure every district has a single governing board,” Blanchard said. “Should there be a need to close some schools, a single board would be more apt to do that.”

Lee Sease, a retired educator from Randolph, argued that the current debate is focused on the wrong people.

“The discussion today is more about adults than it is about students,” Sease said. “It’s about power, who has the power and who keeps the power.”

The bill still needs to pass through Senate committees on Finance and Ways and Means before coming up for a vote before the full Senate.

Federal lawmakers eye changes to standardized testing in schools

WASHINGTON — Education officials in Vermont are pleased with a step taken by Congress to reduce the high-stakes standardized testing provisions under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Thursday, U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions gave preliminary approval to the Every Child Achieves Act, which would give more authority to states to decide how to evaluate their schools, and would replace the current law that has led to nearly every school in Vermont to be identified as failing.

U.S. Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., who serves on the Senate committee, said the annual standardized tests taken by Vermont’s children in grades three through 11 do not fully capture what a child is learning in school.

“I think it is wrong to judge schools solely on the basis of narrow tests. We have to work on what kind of criteria we really need,” Sanders said. “What we in Vermont understand is, a kid is more than a test. We want kids to be creative. We want kids to be critical thinkers. We also want schools held accountable for factors other than test scores, including how they meet the challenges of students from low-income families.”

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act — commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind and signed into law in 2001 — calls for annual testing of math and science skills. Every year, a greater percentage of students are needed to pass the tests in order for a school to meet adequate yearly progress, or AYP.

By 2014, the AYP bar had been raised so high that a single student who does not meet proficiency standards will cause the student’s entire school to be identified as low performing. No Child left Behind includes a provision in which a state can receive a waiver from the high standards, as long as the state agrees to use standardized the scores to evaluate teachers.

Vermont is one of a small handful of states who did not seek out a waiver. As a result, nearly every school in the state has been identified as low performing.

In August, the State Board of Education sent a letter to Congress requesting provisions outlined in the Every Child Achieves Act: more flexibility to evaluate the state’s education system, without placing so much emphasis on standardized testing.

“Although the federal government is encouraging states to use scores for teacher, principal and school evaluations, this policy direction is not appropriate,” the letter reads, noting that standardized tests do not measure other skills called for the by the state’s Education Quality Standards, such as “global citizenship, physical and health education and wellness, artistic expression and transferable 21st-century skills.”

Friday, Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education, welcomed the news that Congress is looking at a replacement for No Child Left Behind.

“We are encouraged by what the senator is doing and we are encouraged by the new direction they are taking,” Morse said.

Agency of Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe is also encouraged by the steps being taken by Congress.

“If this bill becomes law, Vermont should have the flexibility to ensure greater equity of opportunities for all students, to ensure all our students are sufficiently supported to reach their full potential, and to ensure all educators are engaged and supported in professional learning and improving instruction,” Holcombe said. “While the proposed bill still requires annual testing, there is an opportunity for states such as Vermont to create innovative assessment systems that work for their needs.”

Lawmakers discuss vaccine exemptions for children

MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers are considering the elimination of the philosophical exemption for parents who wish to send their children to public school without being vaccinated.

Wednesday afternoon, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, introduced an amendment to a bill that modifies how the Department of Health handles information in its vaccine registries. 

Mullin said the amendment addresses concerns both immediate and long term.

“We’re one plane ride away from measles hitting Vermont,” said Mullin, noting a measles outbreak in December in California that spread to 16 other states, including New York.

Mullin’s other concern is the decline in the number of children who are being vaccinated in Vermont.

By one measure, Vermont has one of the lowest rates of child vaccination of any state in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the 2012-13 school year, 6.1 percent of children entering kindergarten in Vermont did not receive one or more of 34 vaccinations recommended by age 6 by the CDC.

And not only is Vermont’s rate near the top for the country, it is growing. During the 2011-12 school year, 5.7 percent of incoming kindergartners did not receive one or more vaccinations.

The philosophical exemption is the most common one invoked by Vermont parents who do not want to vaccinate their children. During the 2012-13 school year, 371 children who entered kindergarten without one or more vaccinations claimed a philosophical exemption, compared with 30 children claiming a medical exemption and only 14 claiming religious exemption.

Mullin’s amendment — which includes support from co-sponsors Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington; and Senate Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor — met with opposition from lawmakers who might otherwise support eliminating the philosophical exemption.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor, who had a family member with polio and who was a “polio pioneer” by being among the first children to receive the vaccine, said that while he supports vaccination, he opposed the amendment because it was introduced without first being discussed by the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, concurred with McCormack, noting that while the issue came up for debate three years ago, there has not been any debate this session.

“I voted for this in the past but I won’t vote for it today,” Cummings said. “The people have a right to be heard, not two years ago or three years ago, but today.”
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, spoke in support of eliminating the philosophical exemption, while suggesting it doesn’t go far enough.

“I’m not even sure there should be a religious exemption,” White said. “If it were up to me, I’d eliminate the religious exemption, too.”

Mullin said that, based on past testimony taken from parents who use the religious exemption, that eliminating it “raises the specter of a court battle.”

In the end, lawmakers decided to take testimony on the issue, which will be limited to new scientific studies issued since the last time they took testimony, and will revisit the issue Wednesday.

McCormack noted that, regardless what decision he and his fellow lawmakers make, parents will be unhappy.

“No matter what we do, large numbers of Vermonters will feel we erred and did an injustice to the people,” McCormack said.

Dem leaders look to kill ban on teacher strikes

MONTPELIER — Democratic leaders are maneuvering to amend a bill slated to hit the House floor Wednesday by replacing language that calls for a ban on teacher strikes and the imposition of labor contracts by school boards with a study.

That would significantly weaken the legislation, H.76, that has been pushed heavily by Republican Rep. Kurt Wright of Burlington. Although he has secured a vote on the bill from Democratic leaders, they are now looking to kill off key parts.

In addition to the ban on strikes and contract impositions, it would institute a 1-cent tax rate increase on districts that cannot reach a contract agreement within one year.

Rep. Tim Jerman

Rep. Tim Jerman

House Deputy Assistant Majority Leader Tim Jerman, D- Essex, said Democrats are considering an amendment to be offered on the House floor that would institute a study on whether teacher strikes should be banned.

“We anticipate having an amendment tomorrow that will change that somewhat substantially and be a study looking at the whole issue,” he said. “As of right now that’s what’s on the table.”

Jerman said he believes the Democratic leadership team will secure enough votes to pass an amended bill that will provide “an unfettered study that isn’t biased one way or the other.”

“I think so,” Jerman said. “It’s been a difficult count because the bill keeps changing.”

The bill is getting a floor vote because of commitments made by the leadership team in order to move a larger education bill through the chamber. Wright and others are now working to secure enough votes to maintain the strike ban.

Wright, who plans to hold a news conference about the bill Tuesday morning, said he expects some independents and about 12 to 15 Democrats will join the Republican caucus. It’s unclear whether that coalition can fend off the Democratic leadership’s efforts, though.

“I think that it’s time for us to act. This bill has been around for a long time,” Wright said. “We either want to ban strikes and the imposition of contracts or not.”

Rep. Kurt Wright

Rep. Kurt Wright

House Minority Leader Don Turner said House Republicans will stand together in support of the ban.

“We feel that it’s time to implement the ban on strikes. I think there’s been enough harm over the years, the most recent in South Burlington. It’s time to stop that. Police officers, fire fighters, they’re essential. They can’t strike. I think it’s time in Vermont to put teachers under that same category,” he said.

But he, too, said it is unclear how the House will vote on Wednesday.

“I am very hopeful. I am confident in our caucus and where we’re going to be. The problem is I don’t know what the (Democrats) will be offering up to their members to not vote for it. All we can do is stick together to support this.”

The bill cleared the House Education Committee on a 8 to 3 vote. However, the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, which oversees labor issues, rejected the bill on a 5 to 3 vote.

The bill puts the Vermont NEA, which opposes the bill, at odds with the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports it. Gov. Peter Shumlin angered the union last fall when he declared during an ongoing teacher strike in South Burlington that such strikes should be banned.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Lawmakers to discuss guns, education and health care

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers this week will tackle issues related to health care, economic development, gun control, education and advanced directives for the terminally ill.

Tuesday, the Senate is expected to give final approval to a bill that would expand the circle of people who are authorized to make end-of-life decisions for a patient who lacks the capacity to do so for himself or herself.

Current law allows for family members — spouse, parent, adult child, sibling, or grandchild — members of the clergy to make decisions regarding do-not-resuscitate (DNR) orders or an order to continue life-sustaining treatment.

The proposed bill would allow for the designation of one or more “surrogates” who are capable of acting “in accordance with the patient’s known wishes and values,” the bill states.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate will take up an economic development bill that would lower the wage threshold for employers to qualify for the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative, a state program that provides financial incentives for employers in a number of fields — including manufacturing and technology — who offer their employees a “livable wage.”

The bill before the Senate would lower that wage amount from $14.64 an hour to $13 an hour. Critics of the bill say the reduction in the salary threshold could end up costing the state money as more workers qualify for public assistance.

Still on the Senate side, this week, the Senate Education Committee will discuss a school-district merger bill approved last week by the House. The bill calls for school districts to study and come up with proposals on how they will merge into districts with at least 1,100 students.

In a nod to the narrative coming out of the November elections that voters are fed up with rising property taxes, the bill includes a provision to cap education spending if it exceeds this year’s rate of growth of 2.95 percent.

Over on the House side, the Judiciary Committee will discuss and take testimony on a gun-control bill approved by the Senate in March. The bill would require the state to report individuals who have been adjudicated by a court as a danger to himself or others to the National Instant Criminal Background Check Registry.

The committee will take testimony from advocates of the bill — such as Ann Braden, co-founder of Gun Sense Vermont — and opponents, including Ed Cutler, president of Gun Owners of Vermont, who will likely rehash the arguments heard throughout the session in the Senate Judiciary Committee and during a public hearing in February.

Barring any surprises in the House Judiciary Committee, the real debate will likely occur when and if the bill comes up for a vote in the House.

On the health care front, the House Appropriations Committee will discuss a bill approved by a narrow margin last week by House Ways and Means that would raise taxes on cigarettes by 25 cents a pack and would impose an excise tax of 0.5 cents an ounce on sweetened beverages, which is projected to raise approximately $18 million.

The money is intended to leverage federal dollars to raise reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid, but is less than the $52 million in revenue proposed by the House Health Care Committee.

The Appropriations Committee is expected to take recommendations from the Health Care Committee as to how the money should be used.

Capitol Beat 4-6-15

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Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk health care, education, voter registration and the week ahead at the State House in this week’s episode.

House gives final approval to school district consolidation bill

MONTPELIER — A bill that proposes to merge school districts and potentially cap education spending is on its way to the Senate.

House lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would create larger school districts — voluntarily or involuntarily — and cap future education spending if it increase more than it did when voters approved their school budgets in March.

The spending cap component of the bill — created through an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, and approved by House lawmakers Wednesday — would trigger a 2-percent spending cap in 2017 and 2018 if the statewide average education spending increase in 2016 exceeds 2.95 percent, the average rate of growth for budgets approved by voters last month.

As they did Wednesday, lawmakers offered a host of amendments to the bill. Rep. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, made a motion to reconsider the Buxton amendment.

“Yesterday, we discussed what kind of cap we should have. Today, I want to discuss if we should have a cap,” Pearson said.

Rep. Ann Donahue, R-Northfield, said she supported repealing the spending cap provision because she did not believe its structure would curb education spending.

However, House lawmakers declined to take up the discussion, defeating Pearson’s motion by a vote of 114 to 22.

Rep Curtis McCormack, D-Burlington, made a motion to amend the bill to address the repayment of money to the state following the sale of a school.

Currently, when a school district sells a school for which they received construction aid from the state, the district must reimburse the state for 30 percent of the sale price.

The district merger bill calls for a suspension of that rule, allowing the school district to keep all of the money following the sale of a school. McCormack, whose amendment called for the preservation of the current law regarding repayment to the state, argued that such a provision could motivate districts to close and sell off their schools.

“I would suggest that this amendment does not unravel this bill, but rather, restores the integrity of this bill,” McCormack said. “This way, you will not have an incentive to close small schools.”

Rep, David Sharpe, D-Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee, argued that exempting a school district from having to repay the state for construction aid will benefit the community where the school is located.

“If this small piece allows a school to become an economic driver … then we shouldn’t take away that piece,” Sharpe said.

Lawmakers defeated McCormack’s amendment.

The most radical amendment of the day came from Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who called on lawmakers to scrap the entire bill and study the feasibility of her long-offered plan to overhaul education governance.

For the past seven years, Scheuermann has proposed a plan that would create 15 regional tax districts based around the state’s technical centers. Her plan would preserve local school boards, who would create individual school budgets and forward them to a central board, which would create a single budget to be voted on by residents within the district.

Students would have school choice for any school within the tax district, and parents within the district would share a common property tax rate.

“The elimination of local school districts and local school boards, the elimination of local community voice in providing educational services to the students they know best, is not, in my view, the direction we should go,” Scheuermann said.

Sharpe’s committee voted unanimously to not support the amendment.

“This eviscerates the bill that we supported yesterday,” Sharpe said. “It sets us back in our effort to create better education for students at a price Vermonters can afford.”

Sheuermann’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 83 to 37.

The Senate will have the next month to choose to take up the bill, longer than they had last year when a school district merger bill was approved by the House in mid-April.

House gives preliminary approval to school district merger bill

MONTPELIER — House lawmakers have given preliminary approval to a bill that would merge the state’s school districts and potentially cap education spending.

By a vote that was not divided by party lines so much by the size of the towns and cities they represent, House members Wednesday approved a bill that would overhaul school governance in the state by a vote of 88 to 55.

“This bill will provide for valuable improvements to education for our students and do it within a cost structure affordable to Vermont residents,” said Rep. David Sharpe, D- Bristol, who chairs the House Education Committee.

The bill, which has been in the works since January and which follows a district merger bill that received House approval last session before dying in the Senate, calls for the merger of the state’s nearly 300 school districts into districts that provide Pre-K-12 education with at least 1,100 students by the year 2019.

The bill would compel districts to conduct studies on the feasibility of merging with their neighbors — or any other district — and present merger plans to voters for approval by 2017. Following voter approval, the merger plan would be presented to the State Board of Education for final approval.

Districts that do not act by 2017 would have their merger plans made for them by the Agency of Education.

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, offered an amendment to the bill that would have removed the mandatory district consolidation component of the bill.

“I don’t think school districts that are performing satisfactorily in the eyes of a community should be forced to reorganize,” Browning said, expressing opposition to the idea that merger plans would be subject to the approval of the unelected members of the State Board of Education.

“How would Vermont feel if Congress in DC said to Rhode Island and Vermont, ‘You know, your states are small. You need to merge’?” Browning said.

Sharpe noted that Act 153 of 2010 provides financial incentives for districts to merge voluntarily, and in the intervening five years, very few districts have actually merged.

“The voluntary process might work in 100 years, but we don’t have 100 years,” Sharpe said.

Browning’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 80 to 62.

House lawmakers did approve an amendment offered by Rep. Patricia Komline, R-Dorset, to require any future bills dealing with education that cost money to be paid for with a transfer from the General Fund to the Education Fund.

The amendment, which received broad support by a vote of 129 to 19, would not apply to expenses incurred from mandates within the bill itself.

Lawmakers also approved an amendment from Rep. Sarah Buxton, D-Tunbridge, that would implement a school district spending cap if districts do not curb their spending increases voluntarily.

Under the Buxton amendment, if the average increase of school budgets in the state exceeds 2.95 percent in 2016 — the average rate of growth for school budgets approved at town meeting in March — then districts would face a spending cap of 2 percent the following year.

As she did for most of the day, Browning expressed opposition to the idea of a spending cap, saying that requiring school boards to cap their budgets while lawmakers do not cap their own spending smacks of hypocrisy.

“This is, ‘Do as we say, not as we do,’” Browning said.

The bill is expected come before the House for final approval Thursday. But, even if approved, the bill will be sent to the Senate Rules Committee, where last year’s school district merger bill languished until the end of the session.

New report finds savings in school district consolidation

BARRE — On the eve of a legislative debate on a bill to consolidate the state’s school districts, the Agency of Education released a joint report showing small school districts spend more to educate students than their larger counterparts, and offer fewer educational opportunities.

Tuesday, the Agency of Education and Rutgers University released a report titled “When is Small Too Small? Efficiency, Equity & the Organization of Vermont Public Schools,” which is intended, in part, to refute previous study claiming school district consolidation would not save money or improve students’ education experiences.

In January, Daniella Hall and Ian Burfoot-Rochford, researchers at Penn State University, released a study asserting district consolidation in Vermont would not save money, and argued for the preservation of small schools and the state aid that allows them to be financially viable.

However, the new report — from Wendy Geller, data administration director for the Agency of Education, and Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers Graduate School of Education — asserts that Hall and Burfoot-Rochford’s study presents a “selective, inaccurate, and imbalanced characterization” of their source materials by “conflating” studies on school consolidation with studies on school district consolidation.

“What this report does is document the fact Vermont’s numbers are so much smaller than most people’s that it’s not the same conversation and so the previously cited information from Penn State was not really pertinent to Vermont’s situation,” said Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association.

Hall and Burfoot-Rochford did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
The new report cites a 2007 study of school district consolidation in rural upstate New York from authors William Duncombe and John Yinger — who Geller called “seminal thinkers in the field” — that looked at 12 school district mergers from 1985 to 1997.

The study concluded that a school district that doubled in size, from 300 students to 600 students, saw an average decrease in its per-pupil spending of 61.7 percent.

The study notes that many district mergers necessitated the school construction. However, even when taking into account capital construction costs, a district that doubled in size from 300 students to 600 students still saw its per-pupil costs decrease by an average of 31.5 percent.

The study also looked at course work and non-academic activities and determined that high schools with fewer than 400 students offered students substantially less than larger high schools.

The AOE-Rutgers report also looked at data in Vermont, finding that at the elementary level, on average, smaller school districts spend $1,000 more per pupil than larger districts.

“What we are hearing increasingly is that our smaller schools, or the smallest schools, are challenged with regard to breadth of opportunity for students, impressions of sustainability in their own communities and the fact that they’re making investments, in some cases, at fairly substantial rates, just to hang on to what they have and not to expand in any manner,” said Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

The report comes as House lawmakers prepare to debate the merits of a bill that would consolidate the state’s school districts into units with at least 1,100 students that offer pre-K-12 education.

Lawmakers are expected to take up the bill today.

Read the report:

State takes another step away from standardized testing

MONTPELIER — Vermont will not use its newly implemented standardized testing system to evaluate the state’s K-12 schools.

Earlier this week, the State Board of Education voted to not use the results from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — or SBAC — as the basis for its annual report on school performance to the federal government.

The SBAC, a computerized test that students — many for the first time — began taking Tuesday, replaces the New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, which for years provided the annual data on school performance required under the federal “No Child Behind” act, often referred to derisively by educators and administrators as “No Child Left Untested.”

In the spring of 2014, nearly 30 schools took the SBAC test as part of a pilot program. Aside from this handful of students, most will be seeing the new test for the first time this spring.

In theory, the SBAC test will do a better job of measuring the Common Core State Standards adopted by the state in 2010. But, nearly five years later, some school districts have yet to adopt curriculum that reflect the new education standards.

“Test scores can be a trigger for detailed evaluation to learn what schools are doing very effectively or to help identify strategies schools can use to get better,” said Stephan Morse, chairman of the State Board of Education. “However, there are real limitations of what can be concluded about learning based on test scores, particularly in the first years of new tests and standards. Students this spring will be tested as if they had Common Core-aligned curricula for their entire educational career.”

The move continues a shift on the part of the State Board of Education to place less emphasis on standardized testing. In August, the board issued a letter calling on Congress and the Obama administration to reduce the testing mandates under “No Child left Behind.”

Because Vermont does not use standardized tests as a method to evaluate teachers, the federal government applies a strict standard to the state’s schools, in which a single student who receives a score of not proficient results in the entire school being identified as failing.

“The biggest thing is credibility,” said board member William Mathis of the board’s recent decision. “It (the SBAC test) is supposed to be used to determine if you’re college or career ready. The problem is, ‘college and career ready’ if you’re going to MIT is very different than if you’re going to your local college.”

Mathis also noted that, unlike the previous test, the SBAC is administered on a computer or personal electronic device, a challenge to districts with few computers and to students who have not had training in computer use.

“What are we testing, computer literacy or math and English?” Mathis asked.
Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Agency of Education, said she supported the Board’s decision. Holcombe said the state would seek permission from the federal government to offer other forms of data — such as high school graduation rates — for an annual measurement of how the state’s schools are doing.

“If we’re really raising the bar, we need to give schools time,’ said Holcombe, noting that the new test places greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills than the old test.

“We should never forget that this test is not a full measure of what we want from our education system,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe said the state will still release test results to the public.

Capitol Beat 3-16-15

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Vermont Press Bureau reporter Josh O’Gorman and bureau chief Neal Goswami discuss guns, a sugar tax, new budget proposals and education in this week’s episode.

Interest groups oppose budget cuts

MONTPELIER — Advocates for children, the arts and the disabled were among nearly 100 people who turned out for a hearing Thursday on $29 million in proposed cuts to the state budget.

Members of the House Appropriations Committee heard from representatives from host of organizations on a list of cuts released in February to enable the state to close its $112 million budget shortfall. The cuts range from the drastic — closing the Vermont Veterans’ Home and Windsor prison — to charging state employees to park when they come to work.

“This is very unusual to have a hearing at this time in the process,” said Chairwoman Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero. “The list you have seen, which why you are here, is an open brain-storming list. It’s not the sort of list that usually goes public.”

Karen Taylor-Mitchell, executive director of Governor’s Institutes of Vermont, came to the hearing with students from U-32 High School in East Montpelier and Leland and Gray Union Middle and High School in Townshend, as well as a 1,200-signature-strong petition asking the state not cut the program’s funding.

“We reach out to communities that do not have access to educational opportunities of their own,” said Taylor-Mitchell, noting the program offers opportunities in poor and rural areas, such as enabling a student to study engineering, even if the courses aren’t offered at the local school.

“If funding is cut, we will become a tuition-funded program that will leave rural and poor students behind,” Taylor-Mitchell said.

Karen Schwartz, executive director of the Vermont Developmental Disability Council — which is part of the state Agency of Human Services — spoke of the impact eight years of rescissions has had on her program.

“I ask you to consider the cumulative effect of the rescissions over the years,” said Schwartz, who noted that, in face of constant cuts, the number of people her program serves has risen from 1,700 to 2,800, while the number of people overseeing the administration of services has shrunk from 12 to 4.5.

“All people count,” Schwartz said. “It’s a wise use of money to make sure everyone is treated with dignity.”

On the arts front, Victoria Young, chairwoman of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, discussed how a 20-percent cut in the aid it receives from the state will result in a smaller orchestra better suited to chamber music than full-symphonic compositions.

Young also noted her organization would reduce its youth programs, which, for some students, fill a gap as schools around the state reduce their music programs.

Bruce Bouchard, executive director of the Paramount Theatre, spoke of the $90,000 his theater received from the Vermont Arts Council, which allowed for the installation of a high-definition system to broadcast everything from opera to the Superbowl.

“We are considered the centerpiece of the cultural renaissance of Rutland, Vermont,” Bouchard said. “None of this would have happened without money from the Vermont Arts Council.”

Raul Rodriguez, of Salisbury, discussed coming out of prison and his positive experience with the Turning Point Center of Addison County, which is among the recovery centers from around the state whose funds could be cut.

“It’s given me a way of life,” Rodriguez said. “It’s taught me to be selfless, not selfish.”

Agency of Education questions consolidation proposal

MONTPELIER — The Agency of Education does not support portions of a bill that seeks to consolidate the state’s school districts.

The House Ways and Means Committee took testimony Tuesday afternoon from Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe on a bill that seeks to create school districts with at least 1,100 students that offer pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education by the year 2020.

Holcombe, who says studies show the optimal size for a school district is 1,500 students, is a supporter of creating larger districts, with the goals of reducing costs through efficiency and improving student access to educational opportunities by sharing staff across a larger district.

“You are asking people to think of their communities as bigger than their town borders,” Holcombe told the committee. “The bill encourages districts to sit down and look around locally and see who you might want to partner with.”

The 51-page bill includes tax incentives to encourage districts to consolidate on their own, while giving authority to the Agency of Education to consolidate districts that do not do so. But Holcombe said the final authority to consolidate districts that are unwilling or unable to do so on their own should rest elsewhere.

“The authority to assign districts should not rest with one person,” said Holcombe, who suggested the authority should be given to the State Board of Education or another body and should include an appeal process.

The bill also contains a provision to cap the annual increase in education spending for a district at 2 percent. Any budget that comes in with an increase higher than 2 percent would be considered a failed budget.

Holcombe noted that the average increase among education budgets up for vote at town meetings last week was 2.89 percent. Of the 255 budgets, only 106 would have made it under the cap, while 149 would have been considered failed before they ever went to a vote of the people.

Holcombe said the bill would also prevent a school district from seeking a short-term line of credit, even in the event of emergency or disaster.
“If something happens in the middle of the year, a roof collapses or they have a flood in the basement, they need the discretion to be able to address those issues,” she told the lawmakers.

Holcombe said her agency would not support a provision in the bill that would require the agency to review and evaluate the laws surrounding collective bargaining agreements between teachers and school districts.

“Neither the secretary nor any staff at the agency is involved with or equipped to evaluate collective bargaining laws,” said Holcombe in written testimony submitted to the committee. “This is not an aspect of school operations that falls under the purview of the agency, and would be better suited to be dealt with by labor law experts, not education experts. This is an employment issue.”

The bill also proposes to restrict — with exceptions — tuition payments to schools outside Vermont, which would reduce out-of-state tuition payments from $5.7 million to $1.7 million.

Holcombe called the issue a red herring, saying Vermont benefits from receiving students from other states and that such a move might invite retaliatory action from those states, which might decide not to tuition their students to schools in Vermont.