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Clark: Consolidation Curve

In considering the school consolidation issue, we would do well to recall Paul Searls’ 2006 book “Two Vermonts.” While his study was about Vermont in the late 1800s, elements of these “two Vermonts” still exist today – with some interesting modern twists.

According to Searls, as the Industrial Era progressed, a split emerged between Vermont’s rural farmers – he calls them “Uphillers” - and village-dwelling professionals – the “Downhillers.” Their differences weren’t just geographical; they were ideological.

“Uphillers” embraced the values of pre-capitalist America – an emphasis on local, cooperative relationships. Decisions were made between neighbors, with a handshake.

“Downhillers” embraced competition, and formal, contractual relationships. And true to their Industrial Revolution impulses, they supported concentrating power in large, distant institutions.

As we talk about education consolidation today, listen for these strains. The proposal to eliminate local school boards and replace them with regional mega-boards speaks of efficiency, crisp hierarchy, and formal control. It’s classic “Downhill.” Meanwhile some communities have argued that local boards are more humane, and critical to strong schools and communities. They are singing the song of the Uphillers.

The struggle isn’t easy now, and it wasn’t easy then. But today, we don’t live in pre-capitalist Vermont, and we’ve moved well beyond the Industrial Revolution and all its trappings.

Today’s Vermonters are veterans of the Open-Source Revolution. And the Millennial generation is showing a fascinating tendency to demand the best of both worlds – both high-tech and human-scale.

Vermonters today are comfortable with speed and efficiency, and can research and network with previously unimaginable swiftness. But Millennials are also famous for valuing shared power and decision making.

Governments now need to treat citizens as collaborative equals, working less like a hierarchy and more like a wiki. Reliance on control is giving way to decentralized, bottom-up strategies that reward innovation and information sharing.

This puts Vermont ahead of the curve.

In school governance, the densely woven fabric of our communities is Vermont’s strongest asset. The best from our agrarian past can meld with the best the Millennials have to offer.

Vermont is uniquely poised: we can offer globally networked learning while celebrating a vibrant sense of place. We can provide our students with both roots and wings.

Is consolidation into larger school governance structures a good idea? In some communities, possibly. And in others, education and equity goals can best be achieved with different models. Vermonters have the civic skills to create the solutions that fit their communities. The best role for the State will be to provide a range of options, tools and data to support informed local decision making -- and step back.

Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Vermonters over the years, it’s that one size doesn’t fit all. In that sense, we are One Vermont.