February 22, 2021
Many Vermont towns are torn between the financial imperative to consolidate their shrinking student populations into larger nearby educational facilities and their deep desire to retain the cohesive value that these small community schools provide in their communities. The latter is not a function of privilege but rather of equity, as rich and poor live side by side in many of our small towns, and shared community institutions draw them together and unite them in a common purpose.
But the cost side is equally real. It’s past time to reexamine from scratch what we’re doing in public education. Current costs are unsustainable. Vermont ranks fifth in the nation for cost per public school pupil at $19,340. One might be tempted to brag about this investment in our children, except that the true cost doesn’t reflect equity and quality but rather the ratio of fixed infrastructure and remediation costs (special education, counseling, etc.) to a shrinking population of students (now just over 80,000). By various measures, Vermont is not getting the results one might expect and hope for from our substantial investment.
There’s a clear alternative to closure — reinvention. If a building is underused, one can either abandon it or … reimagine it, adding additional uses, resources and purposes to sustain a vital community asset. Reimagining our schools as community centers focused on the physical, emotional and intellectual growth of our children from birth to career age as well as for social purposes, such as senior and teen centers, book clubs, writing groups, etc., would reflect the spirit and needs of the community. And all would enrich the educational mission. The mixing of young and old is, many studies show, intrinsic to social development and learning, especially for the very young.
As a parent then living in Lincoln, it was critical to me to have my young children nearby in my community.
When they were around 10 or 11 years old, I was comfortable with them traveling to a better-resourced educational facility. And for college — the farther from home the better. My evolutionary job as a parent was to love and raise an independent, resilient adult to go forth in the world.
Our current educational vocabulary — preschool/nursery school, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, junior high and high school — falsely chapters a narrative that flies in the face of what we know about child development. These old and arbitrary divisions (and their silly graduations) distract us from the individual learner’s needs.
We must start by pushing our educational investments upstream, i.e., down in age. A shift in investment into our local community schools in education, physical and mental health will pay huge dividends by mitigating the downstream costs of “special ed” and the criminal justice system.
Vermont’s special education population has the largest share of students with emotional disturbances of any state in the nation — and nearly three times the averages seen in neighboring states. The share of Vermont students with other health impairments also exceeds the national average, but is on par with neighboring states. Since 2013, there has been a 75% increase in the number of individual education plans qualifying for extraordinary cost reimbursements from the state. In 2016, on average, Vermont’s supervisory unions and school districts spent an extra $21,840 per special education student. That is one-and-a-half to twice as much as the amount spent per special education student in other states.
Our nation’s international standing is equally shameful:
• 11th globally in investment in pre-primary education as a percentage of government spending on education.
• 22nd in presence of well-defined quality guidelines to cover basic early childhood education and care needs.
• 31st in availability of preschool for families.
All of this argues for investing upstream in our local community schools where learning begins and education should.
Our community schools should subsume “child care” and be open to children from newborns to college-bound. “Lower School” would be mandatory at age 5 and beyond. It would remain hyper-local and continue through grade five. “Upper School” might indeed be consolidated regionally and run from grade six through a final year at grade 11. In the last two years, every student would secure and maintain a business or nonprofit internship, vocational or technical apprenticeship, or a defined course of custom study, dispensing with the last wasteful year of high school, which alone would save some $100 million a year.
Ideally, education costs would include a semester abroad at any of a network of international schools.
Assessment of a student’s acquisition of “transferable skills”: i.e., defined proficiencies and performance indicators, along with Common Core exposure, would determine entrance into college, which could occur at any age when the student has demonstrated these proficiencies. Students could also attend college while completing their final year in Upper School as some do now.
Based on aptitude and choice, Upper School graduates could enter the workforce or continue on to a professional institution to pursue professions in health care, law, finance or education. Alternatively, they could enter a STEM institution to pursue advanced education in engineering, IT, math or science. Or they could opt for advanced vocational disciplines like construction skills, hospitality or food systems. These career institutions would look more like Quinnipiac, CCV or Champlain College, with clearly defined career paths. Or they could opt to attend a liberal arts and humanities institution like Middlebury or Wesleyan.
Having described such a vision for sustaining our community schools, I still believe the greatest determinants of educational progress in the best school system we can devise are the learning culture within the home and community, as well as the economic security of the student’s family.
We therefore must not only redesign our schools, understanding the diversity of learning styles, we must also examine our attitudes at home — the example we set for our children and the respect we instill in them for what happens in school. Tax-grousing, helicopter-parenting, self-esteem-builders, edutainment, trigger-warnings and other risk-eliminators are all enemies of true learning. Our children will, in fact, be who we are, not who we tell them to be — at home or in school.
Finally, imagine if we got this right and Vermont became a national model for public education excellence. School quality and intact communities have always been a major driver of in-migration. Governor Scott’s keynote addressed Vermont’s “demographic challenge” (read low birthrate and shrinking population). Lower taxes and less regulation may attract some businesses, but a healthy environment, strong communities and excellent community schools are often cited as the main rationales for relocation.
Lincoln was the town I chose to live in after I began teaching at Mt. Abraham Union High School the year it first opened. My young children went to the Lincoln Community School until they were 10 and went on to Mt. Abe. It’s painful for me to watch my former community struggle to retain its wonderful community school in the face of a forced consolidation effort.
Let’s get this right. With some vision, discussion and leadership, we can better invest costs, sustain and support our rural communities, and significantly improve educational equity and outcomes while broadening the reach of our community schools. We might even solve our demographic problem along the way.