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Bryan: Consolidation Common

Last winter, the Vermont legislature considered and then postponed a proposal to consolidate elements of school governance from the town level to a more centralized district level - in which school superintendents would represent larger aggregates of towns. Nothing is finalized yet, but as it stands now, loss of power would be greatest in small towns, since representation on the new boards would be determined according to size.

Such a move would have a profound impact on Vermont’s democracy. Education is not only the most important collective action a democracy can undertake for the happiness of its people as individuals, it’s also the most critical sustaining element of our collective being – which is democracy itself.

Common is a word used a lot these days to mean collective – I guess because it suggests a shared resource that’s somehow both peaceful and green. And when politicians seek to separate schools from the so-called public common it’s not only education at stake - it’s the public common itself.

One of America’s most influential educational philosophers ever was also a Vermonter. And he nailed this proposition in place forever.

John Dewey declared that “Democracy must begin at home and its home is the small community.” What he meant was that education and democracy are like two oxen working together under the same yoke - to borrow an image from Robert Frost – and it’s a lesson for the ages.

Yet somehow “local control” has become a swear word in the lexicon of Vermont’s professional education elites.

As the debate over this latest effort to isolate education from the face-to-face judgment of Vermont’s citizens begins anew, however, I remain hopeful. Although Vermont’s ideological left is weaker now than it was 30 or 40 years ago, it’s still alive and kicking: much older of course and much more comfortable, but still wise and perhaps still courageous.

True, many are gone – like the heroic Murray Bookchin. But I’m hopeful that the wisdom of the left with its inherent faith in locality and the ordinary people will yet prevail. Here poet David Budbill comes to mind.

Then all we’d need is for Republicans to heed their own democratic heroes - and there have been plenty of them – like George Aiken. When it comes to community control and town meeting governance John McClaughry is another. Above all they need to abandon this nonsense that the centralist, top down corporate model works in the public sector.

I do admit I have a personal bias. I grew up in a town of only 1435 citizens of all ages. We had two high schools, and my graduating class numbered only seven, so I easily finished in the top ten. UVM wisely rejected me when I first applied. But eventually I finished my education with a Ph.D.

So while I can’t claim to have an exceptional IQ, I do know the people of Newbury saw to it that I received a very good education.