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Does Every Vermont Student Get An Equal Chance At A Good Education?

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In June, Vermont is submitting a plan to the federal government to investigate the equity gap using measuring sticks of our own, not those pre-selected by federal officials.

Does getting a good public education in Vermont depend on whether or not your teacher and principal are experienced and well paid? If so, are urban kids better off, or worse off, than rural ones? And are minorities always the most disadvantaged, when it comes to high quality instruction?

That’s what the U.S. Department of Education wants every state to find out. But in Vermont, the answers do not match up with other states.  

Since January, as required by the federal government, Vermont’s Agency of Education has been gathering data and public comment about educational equity. It must also come up with a plan to make sure the most effective teachers and administrators are distributed throughout the state, and not just working in a few privileged areas.

But Vermont’s Deputy Commissioner, Amy Fowler, says this new federal mandate is based on assumptions that turn out not to be true of Vermont.

“Our equity gaps are very different from gaps in other states, and that’s great news,” Fowler said.

In many other states, she explained, schools in urban areas with the most minority students tend to have the least experienced and qualified teachers, and the highest teacher and administrator turnover. But in Vermont, the “urban” schools, which also have the most minorities, are concentrated in Chittenden County. And that’s where some of the most experienced teachers, principals, and superintendents work. On the other hand, Fowler’s research shows, Vermont’s educationally disadvantaged students tend to attend rural schools in financially strapped towns.

“While inequities exist, they’re largely linked to issues of poverty and isolation from urban centers,” she said.

However, according to her report, even those equity gaps are not huge. The biggest difference is in the percentage of first-year teachers. In Vermont poorest towns, 7 percent of teachers are brand new, versus 2.5 percent in wealthier towns.

But even in towns like Barre and Rutland, where there is a disproportionately large number of first-year teachers, plus higher turnover in administration, community members did not seem all that worried about the lack of veteran educators. At sparsely attended regional meetings on education equity held throughout Vermont this year, Fowler says she heard things like “hiring teachers fresh out of college  is a great way to bring young people into our town. It’s one of the few guaranteed jobs for new college graduates.”

So that leaves Vermont in a bit of a bind. How can the state propose costly solutions to the federal government for problems that don’t seem all that serious?

It’s not that the state has achieved perfect equity in the education it offers young people. Far from it, Fowler admits. It’s just that differences in access to quality education in this state are not easily measured in the way the feds expect.

“Whatever the reasons are for our achievement gaps, it’s not because some schools keep teachers and principals longer than others, or pay them more than others,” Fowler said.

So how does she explain why some groups of students and some schools seem to perform better than others?

That’s going to take more research, Fowler said.

So that, in essence, is the plan Vermont is submitting in June to the federal government — to investigate the equity gap using measuring sticks of our own, not those pre-selected by federal officials. The report is due June 1, but there is still time to offer feedback on it, by going to the website of  the Agency of Education, and submitting comments online.

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