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Slayton: Schools And Community

Reforming Vermont’s snarled, almost Byzantine system of organizing and financing public education seems likely to be the Gordian Knot of the current Legislature.

Painting with broad-brush strokes, you could say schools simply cost too much, especially when they’re very small and located in rural, isolated towns. But the instant you start to look at specifics, things get more complicated.

Most of Vermont’s schools are small, on a national scale, because we’re a state of small towns. And in many rural communities, the public school is the last remaining focus of community identity. Village stores, town doctors, even Post Offices in some cases, are gone. But the local school remains, teaching local kids.

Small schools are believed to be more costly to run, though this supposed fact has been challenged and debated – as have just about all the facts in this complicated problem.

Conventional wisdom insists that merging school districts and forcing small schools to combine with larger schools is the most commonly suggested way of fixing the financial problem while providing a better education. But a fair amount of this conventional wisdom doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny.

The fact is that Vermont has good large schools and not-so-good large schools, educationally impoverished small schools and small schools doing a great job. A small school can feel like a community; a large school can feel like a factory.

There are now dozens of bills before the House Education Committee promoting some form of educational reshuffling or refinancing. Sorting through them will take time and considerable wisdom.

But several points seem undeniably true to me, beginning with the fact that the fabric of Vermont’s small-town culture is precious and our local schools are inextricably woven into it. Two hours on a school bus every day is not education.

Terminating the small schools grant and other financial support for small, rural schools will be a fatal blow to many of those schools - and will therefore weaken many small towns.

A top-down approach to redistricting from Montpelier will, of necessity be a blunt axe, and potentially disastrous. Gradual change and local options, locally decided upon must be part of any new law.

How to properly structure and finance our schools is one of the most important issues we’ve faced in years – and whatever we decide will change us. We’d best be both prudent, and wise in making those decisions.

Our children’s future, and our identity as a state and people are at stake.