Category Archives: Education

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


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.


Video: Vermont this Week on Vermont PBS

Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal P. Goswami joined the panel Friday on Vermont This Week. Watch for an update on potential budget cuts, an education reform bill, a showdown between Gov. Peter Shumlin and the latest on MIT economist Jonathan Gruber’s woes.

Capitol Beat: Press Bureau talks education with Jill Remick

Capitol Beat

Neal Goswami and Josh O’Gorman talk education with Jill Remick of the Agency Education. The legislature is considering several aspects of education reform, primarily changes to educational districts, and Remick, the agency’s  director of communications and legislative affairs, speaks about existing local consolidation efforts, potential changes to the law, and the goals of the Agency of Education.


New poll touts support for removing philosophical exemption

MONTPELIER — A new poll commissioned by a pro-vaccine group shows that 68 percent of Vermonters do not believe parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children through the philosophical exemption in state law.

The poll, commissioned by Every Child By Two, a national nonprofit group that advocates for vaccinations, also found that 73 percent of Vermonters support efforts to change the law. The poll of 880 Vermonters was conducted by Gravis Marketing on Feb. 9 and 10. It has a 3 percent margin of error.

Every Child By Two Executive Director Amy Pisani said the results of the poll “are a clear indication that Vermont needs to take swift action to ensure that all of its kids are protected from dangerous and preventable diseases.”

“When nearly three-fourths of the residents in a state believe there should not be a philosophical exemption for vaccines, it’s time to change the law,” she said.image015

The poll could spur action on legislation introduced by Republican Sen. Kevin Mullin of Rutland, which seeks to remove the philosophical exemption. The state also allows for medical and religious exemptions, but the philosophical exemption accounts for most of the exemptions in Vermont.

Mullin proposed similar legislation in 2012. It cleared the Senate but the House, faced with strong opposition from a coalition of people advocating for parents’ rights, did not advance the measure.

Data from the Vermont Department of Health has shown that the percentage of unvaccinated children has risen in recent years.

image018Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he believes all Vermont children should be vaccinated, but he does not favor changing the state’s exemption law to eliminate the philosophical exemption. The poll found that 70 percent of Vermonters do not favor the governor’s position.

The Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice and other anti-vaccine groups are again expected to wage a strong campaign against Mullin’s legislation. But this year, the Vermont NEA, the state’s largest union that represents teachers across the state, has decided to come out in favor of the bill.

Read the poll questions and data below:

Guns, school governance and tax refund halt – Capitol Beat, Feb. 9, 2015


Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman discuss a public hearing coming up on Tuesday about gun legislation, a House Education Committee bill to reform school governance and why the state has temporarily halted issued tax refunds.

Video: Vermont This Week on Vermont PBS

Bureau chief Neal Goswami joins Alicia Freese of Seven Days, Taylor Dobbs of Vermont Public Radio and moderator Stewart Ledbetter on this week’s show.

Speaker Smith rallies his troops

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers, one month into the legislative session, will soon be casting tough votes on bills in committee, and then on the House and Senate floors. That fact is not lost on House Speaker Shap Smith, who looked to rally his troops Tuesday at the weekly Democratic caucus.

A state budget with a $112 million gap that must be closed means cuts will be made to programs that constituents likely depend on. And the public is demanding property tax relief, but voters don’t want to see changes to their local school districts.

Smith, now in his fourth term as speaker, knows just how a legislative session plays out. He warned his faction of the pressures that will soon wash over them as they try to address the state’s challenges.

House Speaker Shap Smith address the Democratic House Caucus on Tuesday, Feb. 3.

House Speaker Shap Smith address the Democratic House Caucus on Tuesday, Feb. 3.

“One of the most difficult parts for all of us … is to keep an open mind and not to close ourselves off to possible solutions to the challenges we face as we move forward. We’re going to get over the next couple of months people asking us to promise them that we won’t do X, Y or Z,” he said. “What’s really important, from my perspective, is to the extent possible, acknowledge that you understand where they’re coming from, but you can’t make them promises because you really need to see what the lay of the land is.”

The constituents, Smith declared, placed their trust and faith in those they elected. Now it’s time for those elected to begin crafting solutions. But solutions will leave some displeased.

“We’re here to grapple with those issues and those constituents send you here because they believe that you’re the person that can grapple with those issues. They trust you to make those decisions. And so have those conversations, understand what they’re thinking and feeling, and bring their voice here and tell them, ‘I want you to be part of this conversation and we can’t close this conversation off before it even starts. We can’t give you the answer before we even know what the problem is,’” Smith said.

The address Tuesday wasn’t the result of any particular concern about morale within the caucus, according to Smith aide Dylan Giambatista. Rather, it was an effort to encourage members to remain focused and ready themselves for the work ahead, he said.

Just a few minutes before the Democratic caucus, House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, delivered his own pep talk to the Republican caucus. He, too, reminded his members that the constituents sent them to Montpelier with a purpose. He urged them to consider all implications — particularly economic impacts — before casting any yes votes, even for bills in committee.

Like any good leader, Smith offered hope to his members.

“We spend some time here wrestling with really difficult issues and it is easy to look at the glass half empty rather than the glass half full,” Smith said to a room full of mostly House Democrats, but also a few lobbyists and reporters.

He recounted recent, positive meetings with tech entrepeneurs, who he said are hiring. “There was a lot of optimism about what can happen, and it wasn’t just big businesses. It was businesses ranging from three to four people to 500 to 600 people,” Smith said.

Tuesday’s pep rally ended, of course, on a high note.

“There is a really good energy going through this building right now. I feel that people are up to the challenge. That’s it’s not partisan driven. That people are looking at these as Vermont’s challenges and Vermont’s problems, not Democrats’ problems, not Republicans’ problems, not Progressives’ problems, not independents’ problems,” the speaker said. “Remember we are still sitting in a Democratic institution that still allows access to its citizens and still values solutions to problems not barriers to solutions. We’re in Montpelier, we’re not in Washington. And thank God for that, right?”

Podcast: Capitol Beat 2-2-15


Vermont Press Bureau reporter Josh O’Gorman and bureau chief Neal Goswami talk education, health care and exfoliating.

Manufacturers call for less regulation, more education

MONTPELIER — Leaders in manufacturing say the nation and the state don’t need more regulations, but better regulations.

Approximately 100 people turned out Thursday for a conference hosted by Associated Industries of Vermont that looked at national and state trends in the manufacturing industry, as well as the challenges and opportunities the industry is facing.

“As you know all too well, manufacturing here in Vermont and across the country has its strengths, but there is still so much more to be done,” said Bill Driscoll, vice president of Associated industries of Vermont.

The conference included remarks from Ned Monroe, senior vice-president of external affairs for the National Association of Manufacturers, who offered a big-picture perspective on the state of the industry in the United States and in Vermont.

According to Monroe, nationally, manufacturing comprises 12.5 percent of the gross domestic product. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in Vermont, approximately 31,700 people — or 10.4 percent of the workforce — are employed in the manufacturing sector, earning an average salary of $69,000 a year.

Monroe later clarified that this figure was not the average salary of a person working on an assembly line, but also included professions related to manufacturing, such as engineers and electricians.

Monroe said that between excessive regulation and having the highest corporate income taxes in the world, manufacturing in the United States is 20 percent more expensive than anywhere else.

“They can’t work in a total fog as to how they will be taxed and regulated,” said Monroe of the uncertainty faced by manufacturers. “We all want clean air and clean water and protect the beauty of the environment, but we don’t need new regulations. What we need are better regulations, because what we have now create barriers and harm global competitiveness.”

Janette Bombardier, Vermont senior location executive for IBM, echoed Monroe’s thoughts, especially when it comes to regulations created on the state level.

“There’s no need for Vermont to recreate regulations at the state level. There are plenty of federal laws already,” Bombardier said. “When you create new regulations at the state level, you create confusion.”

Bombardier also addressed another barrier to manufacturing in Vermont: the lack of skilled workers.

“We continue to have openings because we can’t find enough people,” said Bombardier, who said the starting salary at GLOBALFOUNDRIES in Essex for a person with a two-year degree is $44,000, plus benefits. “That’s a pretty good job for a 20-year-old who’s just starting out.”

According to Monroe, at the national level, 80 percent of manufacturers report that they struggle to find skilled workers.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott said the expansion of manufacturing jobs in Vermont is a key component to retaining young, employed tax payers, many of whom have left the state in recent years.

“That’s the working class,” Scott said. “We’ve come to the end of the road in terms of how much can tax Vermonters.”

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, who serves on the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, said the current economic climate in Vermont offers challenges and opportunities.

“We do have some great manufacturing companies, environmental tech companies and biotech companies. We’re talking about these clean, green manufacturing jobs and they’re good jobs,” Scheuermann said. “We need to sell ourselves and we need to have a product to sell so we can show people that this is a state where things can happen.”

“The biggest takeaway for me is, we talk about not being able to keep our children in the state, but if we’re not educating them enough to take the jobs that are available, then we’re never going to be successful,” said Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland.

“Economic development of jobs is a key issue, and if we can’t develop jobs, we’ll lose parents and children,” said Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Montpelier. “We’ll lose a population we can’t afford to lose. We have to be competitive.”

Join the conversation with the Vermont Press Bureau by following us on Facebook, Twitter and at Listen for new podcasts Mondays and Fridays, and look for Capitol Beat on ORCA Media and online.

Capitol Beat Podcast 1-26-15


Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman talk about sugar, beagles, Vermont Health Connect and a dispute between two Penn State graduate students and the state Agency of Education.


Teachers and school boards disagree on labor proposal

Organizations that represent teachers and school boards disagree on a proposal that would force them to negotiate.

During his budget address last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would prohibit teachers from going on strike and school boards from imposing working conditions, and instead require both sides to enter into binding arbitration.

“We should pass legislation prohibiting both teacher strikes and board-imposed contracts, while requiring both sides to resolve differences through third-party decision-making when negotiation fails,” Shumlin said at the time.

For the Vermont-NEA and the Vermont School Boards Association, which represent teachers and school board members in the State House, the proposal, for the most part, is palatable.

“We understand that strikes are very disruptive to the communities where they occur. The vast majority of contracts are settled without strikes and imposition,” said Nicole Mace, general counsel for the Vermont School Boards Association, which supports the idea of prohibiting teacher strikes and contract imposition.

Teacher strikes in Vermont are few and far between, according to statistics from the Vermont-NEA, which cites 26 strikes in the more than 40 years that teachers have been permitted to collectively bargain, including seven in the past 10 years.

During the past 10 years, school boards have imposed contracts on their teachers 10 times, most recently in the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union in 2012.

“Since the late ‘90s, the Vermont-NEA has been willing to forgo the right to strike if, and only if, school boards forgo the right to impose working conditions and both parties enter into binding arbitration,” said Darren Allen, communications director for the Vermont-NEA.

That last bit about binding arbitration is what’s standing in the way of total agreement on both sides. While it supports the proposition of prohibiting strikes and contract imposition, the Vermont School Boards Association has adopted a resolution opposing the requirement that both sides enter into binding arbitration.

“Binding-interest arbitration tends to maintain the status quo,” Mace said. “It will perpetuate current contracts, many of which were negotiated 30 years ago, and in many cases those contract frameworks continue to exist.”

Allen asserts that it is the school boards, not the teachers, that are standing in the way of changing the way both sides negotiate.

“The biggest concession here is that a labor group is willing to forgo their most powerful tool. It is school boards that are standing in the way and preserving the status quo,” Allen said.

Currently, Vermont is one of 12 states that allow teachers to strike. If lawmakers were to adopt Shumlin’s proposal, Vermont would join five other states — Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maryland and Nevada — that prohibit strikes and require binding arbitration.

Agency of Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe said she is in favor of legislation that would prohibit teacher strikes.

“Ultimately, I think schools are essential services. It’s not only the way we educate our students, but parents rely on them to keep to keep their children safe, and for the neediest of our children, it’s the place where they get most of their nutritious meals,” Holcombe said. “Just like we expect our road crews to show up when it’s snowing, we need our teachers to show up in the classroom.”

Join the conversation with the Vermont Press Bureau by following us on Facebook, Twitter and at Listen for new podcasts Mondays and Fridays, and look for Capitol Beat on ORCA Media and online.

Video: Capitol Beat on ORCA with Speaker Shap Smith

House Speaker Shap Smith sits down with Vermont Press Bureau chief Neal Goswami and VPB reporter Josh O’Gorman to discuss the first two weeks of the legislative session.