The Phil Scott Plan — Make Vermont Education Great Again

Whew.  There’s a lot to digest in “Designing Our Future: A Blueprint for Transforming Vermont’s Education System.” First it was an internal memo obtained by VtDigger and then after that leaked, the agency decided to publish it for real.  They are careful to remind us that this is not an actual proposal.  They call it a “thought experiment.”

Here are a few takeaways:

1.  It was not just developed by education officials

As far as I can tell, this plan was started internally at the AOE, led by Secretary of Education Dan French.  But it’s hard to tell if any AOE staff participated. The members of the design team, other than French, that they do tout, are members of Phil Scott’s cabinet: the Secretaries of Commerce and Community Development, Digital Services, Human Services, the Commissioner of Labor, and staff from the Governor’s office.

Notice something?

No Vermont educators were involved.

(But as a teacher, you expect that.)

2.  The stakes are high — really high

Apparently under the new proposal, Vermonters would “come together as regions, and ultimately as a state, to save the state; increase affordability, resources for vulnerable populations, and economic growth.”

Save the state?

My, my. The things we put on our schools.

3.  This is a super-unrealistic bureaucratic power grab

The proposal calls for condensing all of Vermont’s tiny supervisory unions into four big regional ones.  Instead of a lot of different superintendents, we’ll have four. Instead of a bunch of school boards from every town, we’d have four.

Clearly this won’t ever happen.  Consider the vicious fights going on right now over Act 46 (including a number of lawsuits). I don’t think Vermonters have any interest in anything like this at all any time soon.  

And by that I mean “ever.”

4.  It’s riddled with economic anxiety

Ever since he came into office, Phil Scott has been hammering his point about our declining population.  Vermont schools are the “canary in the coal mine” — declining in enrollment and increasingly expensive. Every year around budget time Scott makes noise about cutting school costs, sparring both years late in the budget process, and just generally seeming like he has no idea how to work with lawmakers to control costs.  

His other big goal is to make sure Vermont schools are training workers who’ll stick around, get jobs, and pay taxes.

So this is not a document filled with lofty language about education.  This is a document about using schools to grow the economy. There is a focus on Career Technical Education (CTE).  There is talk of “equity,” but mostly equity of economic opportunity. Even school buses, for Scott, fit into the lens of job growth:

“If a local school does not provide transportation, parents have to make career choices to ensure that they have the flexibility to take kids to and from school, impacting an individual’s ability to fully participate in the labor market.”

Duly noted.

5.  The new proposal would fix these economic problems

If we institute this plan, they claim:

“ . . . employers can be sure of a reliable, consistent stream of employees, from those ready to work directly out of high school in skilled professions to those who complete graduate degrees in Vermont postsecondary institutions.”

But isn’t that backwards?  Vermont’s problem hasn’t been that we don’t have smart young people coming out of our schools.  We do. It’s just that they don’t stick around — because there aren’t enough good jobs. You can’t just expect a “reliable, consistent stream of employees” to be sitting around waiting on your call when there’s nothing available.  That sounds like something a bunch of business people would say.

6.  They want the curriculum to be guided by the local economy

That’s right.  Talk to business leaders first before you go handing out more pointless math homework — so that your pointless math homework actually has a point because it’s all about how to push around a mop.  

Yep, it’s time to “ensure that all education-focused decisions (not just those that affect CTE) were made in the context of regional economic and workforce development needs” and “better align secondary school education resources with economic need and innovation efforts in the region.”

Time to fix the curriculum!  We’re cutting art and music and focusing on a new class.  It’s called “Making Change at WalMart.”

I jest.  But as a teacher, I’m dubious.  For one thing, as I mentioned, they’ve got it backwards.  If you want good workers, stop outsourcing. Offer jobs that pay good wages.  Offer stability. Offer dignity. Don’t complain no one’s “prepared” to work long hours for no money.  Also, don’t complain that local kids — whose parents’ jobs you cut twenty years ago and made them fight and scrap for a living while raising kids — aren’t whizzing through the school system on their way to Master’s degrees.  It doesn’t work that way. For kids to have opportunities, it helps if their parents had well-paying, stable jobs too.

If no one’s prepared for your jobs, ask yourself why not.  Don’t blame schools. Businessman, heal thyself.

7.  CTE is hot

That’s right — Phil Scott wants workers.  CTE — Career Technical Education — is mentioned 29 times in this report.  Meanwhile Flexible Pathways are mentioned once, and Proficiency-Based Learning not at all.  These cabinet types want to “Reduce the negative stigma of CTE” and foster “consistent practice and transparency in what CTE ‘counts for re high school graduation requirements.”

And — if you’re a undergrad focusing on CTE, you’re about to hit the jackpot.  Scott wants “consideration of existing educator contract terms, moving toward a more holistic, shared approach that appreciates the relevant skills CTE teachers may bring to the table.”

In other words, get ready for pay day!

8.  As a matter of fact, Vermont schools are focusing too much on academics at the expense of CTE

Here is what they say “must be given up” if we’re to “thrive”:

“Siloed curricular development and scheduling approach between general education and CTE, as well as relative over- emphasis in general education on academic preparation, at expense of career readiness and life navigation skills.”

I wonder if “life navigation skills” (LNS) will be the next hot term?

“Sorry, Mom, I can’t work on my homework.  I’m working on my Life Navigation Skills.”

“But you are playing Fortnite!”

“That’s right — I’m navigating life.”

But let’s step back.  Academic skills are — overemphasized?

Remember that “career readiness” is actually one-half of the phrase “college and career readiness” — which is really code for “the Common Core” — a huge, untested set of standards foisted on states like Vermont by the Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  It’s worth remembering that schools were forced to focus almost exclusively on basic academic skills precisely because of big, top-down federal mandates like Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and the Every Students Succeeds Act — all of which required districts to drill down on basic math and English at the expense of arts, music, CTE, and yes, LNS.

So don’t hit us.  We were just doing what we were told.

9.  There would be a statewide teacher contract

Not to go unmentioned is this little tidbit, too, which Phil Scott has been dreaming about ever since he took office:  “Teachers would become state employees of the single statewide school district. There would be one teacher contract.”

As much as I don’t want that, I will say that there are three pay tiers in Vermont ed: 1) the small schools, which pay nothing, 2) Chittenden County and the rich schools like Stowe, which pay the most by far, and 3) everyone else.  I switched from category 1 to category 3 after my first year of teaching. I jumped up $11,000 — and was better supported and had fewer discipline problems. Small schools in poor towns can’t compete for the best staff. It’s a fact.

10.  It calls for statewide school choice

The biggest controversy around this proposal so far is around a relatively small part of the document:

“Students would have statewide school choice among all the public schools, technical centers, and non-sectarian independent schools approved by the Agency.” (Emphasis mine.)

Former Ed Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, who resigned her post last year after what I imagine were some pretty major differences with newly elected Governor Scott, wrote a scathing critique of this plan.  As always, she’s worth reading.  I had no idea that many Vermont private schools lack the ability to teach students with disabilities — while happily receiving public money.

And this document was written by a bunch of Republicans.  So school choice — not surprising.

11.  School choice is an “equity” issue

“Equity” is a hot word on the left right now, especially in education circles (and especially pertaining to race).  Of the two big conferences I’ve attended this fall, both were centered on equity.

Meanwhile it’s always fun to hear the left’s language co-opted by Republicans:

“[This plan] would also remove current disparities between students who, because of their district of residence, can exercise a choice about which school to attend, and those students who have only one school in which they can enroll free of charge. The current governance framework is arguably inequitable in this respect . . . ”

But that’s missing the point.  The inequity isn’t that some children have choice.  It’s that some children have good local schools while others don’t.  I have a feeling no one attending Stowe or CVU is saying, “Gee, I wish I had more school choice.”

12.  The report cites some misleading data on education spending

After citing declining enrollment, the proposal states:

“Unfortunately, Vermont’s education spending has not decreased at the same rate. According to the National Education Association, in the 2015-2016 school year Vermont’s per pupil expenditure was $23,557, or $2,000 more per pupil than New York who spent the second most. This compares to a national average of $11,787 per pupil.”

Yes — but no.

According to the 2015-2016 NEA report, Vermont did spend $23,557 per pupil, ranking us first in spending.  But actually not. The next year’s report revised that number down to $19,417, ranking us sixth.  Our 2016-2017 spending is down even more — to $19,399.

Why didn’t the report mention this?

(And Rebecca Holcombe suggests further reasons why these numbers are skewed, claiming that our per pupil spending is more like $18,000 a year.  Again, read her piece.)

13.  Vermont Schools should become brands and have PR campaigns

This is where the report really gets all Republican.  More from the file of “we should run schools like businesses.”

You see, even though this plan would strip local democratic influence and shutter local schools, the public would be more informed — thanks to the handy PR personnel these new mammoth districts would hire:

“Each education region or district would have one (or more) FTE position for a communications professional who reports directly to the superintendent. This person would be responsible for public and media relations, communications strategy, building communications policies, plans and best practices . . .”

Okay, okay, fine . . .

“ . . . and serving as an ombudsman for the region.”

Wait . . .  what?

Let me get this straight:  No more locally elected representatives, but at least you’ll have an regional ombudsman on your side?  (And he’s also the guy in charge of district PR?)

This whole idea sounds less like communication and more like good, old-fashioned marketing:

“In this way the communications team . . . in addition to serving the Agency of Education’s communications needs, would provide services to regions through a client relationship similar to a PR agency.”

It’s almost as though these Republicans are swapping community schools for quasi private ones:

“Regionalization of communications services . . .  would also give each region an opportunity to define their brand and build a public identity that new members of the region can get behind.”

Out with your silly local traditions, and in with regional brands!

“One can imagine the Champlain Valley schools, for example, building a brand identity and community spirit that is distinct from the North Country Regional Schools or Central Vermont School System.”

Yeah right.  I’m sure people in Thetford would feel a really shared sense of “community spirit” with the people of Rochester.  Go Central Vermont!

It’s a corporate approach.  Make up for gutting local traditions by peddling a corporate version of them.  There is nothing sadder to me that the way the 99 Restaurant in my town, having edged out Mom and Pop, covers their walls with pictures of local sports teams.  You’re not from here and you never were. You just want our money. Stop pretending.

14.  The Scott Plan is going to Make our Schools Great Again

Now this is where the report is really reaching.  Not only will we reduce costs, but our schools will become so great under the Scott Plan that outsiders will want to move to Vermont just for the schools:

“Finally, each of the advances under the new system . . .  could help sell the state as an ‘education destination’ focused on rigorous personalized education, equity in opportunity for all students, and strong ties between both academics and career readiness starting in the elementary grades.  A marketing campaign designed to draw in more young families and keep graduating college students within the state could be relatively simple to develop based on these novel features.”

So you’re telling me we’re going to cut spending on education, consolidate schools against the will of local communities, increase staff-student ratios, and slash the number of superintendents watching over districts . . .  and suddenly people will want to move here just for the schools?

Come on, it’s easy.  

Just take away local control, community schools, offer kids a choice between a school 60 minutes away or one 75 minutes away, jack up regional pride via some good PR, let local businesses set curriculum, sprinkle in some magical CTE  . . .

And sit back and watch young families flock to Vermont.

Good luck with that.