By EMERSON LYNN
Who controls our schools? Who sets the policy? Who is responsible for correcting the course of our educational system if it goes askew? And who judges if it has gone askew? Who sets the expectations? Who is responsible if the system is found to be in decline?
The answers are not as clear as you might expect, given that schools have been around for a century or two. Currently, the questions are gaining currency as we push through the last stages of Act 46, the state’s school consolidation law, and as we struggle to match costs with a student population level that has plummeted in the last 25 years.
The questions being asked reflect the source of the questions. School boards want the decisions to be theirs. Teachers have their own priorities, as do principals and superintendents. And our elected leaders – the governor foremost among them – see a role they can’t ignore. The costs of indifference are too high.
In Vermont we’ve always deferred to local control as the preferred answer. Those closest to the schools are the ones most capable of shouldering the responsibilities. It’s the voters in a school district who pay the bills, and it’s the parents of the children in the schools who are closest to what happens in the classroom. The further away the center of control, the less fruitful the results.
Act 60 changed that reality. For good reasons. The system that existed – local control and all – did not produce a system that provided an equal educational opportunity for all schools. What we had skewed the advantages heavily toward wealthy towns and against poorer ones. The ability to correct that imbalance was something beyond anything local school boards and their voters could do.
The cause needed an outside force, something beyond local control.
We are in need of that same outside force today, the question is how it’s framed, how this force is applied, for how long, and with what authority.
Philosophically, these are questions that typically define the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans shy away from centralized control, adhering to the belief that things are better controlled from the bottom up, not the top down. Democrats take a more global approach, asking the government to be the actor of change.
So it’s an odd position for a Republican governor like Phil Scott to be in the Democrats’ space. It’s his administration that is pushing for statewide goals, and, to his detractors, using statewide control to push the educational system where he thinks it needs to go. He’s picked up where his predecessor, Gov. Peter Shumlin, left off with Act 46.
It would be a simple thing for Mr. Scott to step aside and say that the direction of our educational system is something to be decided town by town, school by school. It would be a simple thing to say that no one knows better than local school boards, and the local voters who support their schools and to leave it at that.
There is also a lot of value to that simplicity. Generally, the closer we are to the problem the better our answers. Montpelier can’t have Richford’s insight when it comes to managing its affairs.
But there are times when the system is faced with challenges that can’t be addressed locally. Act 60 was one example. Act 46 was, and is, another. Act 60 addressed inequity, Act 46 addressed costs and inequity. They were both top down directives. Had we relied on a bottom up approach nothing would have happened.
We’re still not where we need to be. We can debate the preferred process when it comes to how our schools are run, and, generally speaking, that should be a process that defers to the community. The closer the control to the subjects being controlled the better.
The state’s role is one of breaking inertia. It’s not about taking control. It’s about forcing change. The difference is key. Control is enduring and inflexible. Forcing change without the need to control accomplishes the task and is liberating, it promotes flexibility.
We are at that point of inflection in Vermont. The educational system’s century-long inertia is being broken, which is essential. More needs to happen. But the process, and the goals, need to be articulated in a way that explains that need, but also in a way that the end game is understood as something that is best driven from the bottom up, not the top down.
Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of The Essex Reporter and the St. Albans Messenger, where this editorial first appeared.