By Roger Crowley for VTDigger
School children watch from the gallery as lawmakers debate an education reform bill earlier this year.
By Tiffany Danitz Pache, VTDigger.org
Over the past three years, the Vermont Legislature has approved significant education reforms — Act 77, Act 166 and Act 46 — and now implementation of all three laws is converging.
Each new law requires a major shift in the way schools deliver education, and schools are struggling to meet 2016 deadlines for implementation of Act 77, Act, 166 and Act 46.
Some school administrators are saying the changes are coming too fast — and at a high financial cost to local school districts.
Under Act 46, the state’s 277 school boards and local districts must develop merger plans; Act 166 mandates public school pre-K programs; and Act 77 requires public schools to provide students with personal learning plans and access to early college courses.
New variable spending caps imposed by the Legislature in the coming year could make it difficult for schools to implement all the changes in 2016.
That’s because many local districts are in a tough spot. Two of the laws — public school pre-K and early college (known as “dual”) enrollment — cost money to implement. The third law, Act 46, the school district consolidation law, puts a cap on local school district spending.
The spending threshold in Act 46, known as Allowable Growth Percentage (AGP) is meant to keep statewide school spending rates to just 2 percent. Each district is allowed to grow its budget by a prescribed amount between 0 and 5 percent based on how much was spent in the previous school year.
When districts exceed the threshold, taxpayers will be whacked by a big penalty under Act 46: The projected local tax doubles for every extra dollar spent.
A number of districts will automatically hit the threshold because of a 7 percent increase in health care premiums next year.
Other districts will reach the spending cap when they implement mandatory pre-K and dual enrollment programs.
Jay Nichols, superintendent of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, said it’s an understatement to say that school boards and staff are feeling a tremendous amount of pressure as they try to execute the three pieces of sweeping legislation at once under spending constraints.
“There is a lot of stress on school boards, they are under as much pressure as I’ve ever seen them under,” Nichols said. “There is also more pressure on staff and personnel than ever before, not because any of these things [new policies] are bad. They are all good, but we need time and resources to do them well.”
The Legislature is, in effect, asking school boards to spend much less and do a lot more — in a short time frame, Nichols says.
House and Senate leaders say they will consider changes to the cap, including raising the threshold or building in an exemption for health care costs. Gov. Peter Shumlin has said he will recommend repeal of the threshold or a one year moratorium on implementation.
It’s unclear whether the proposals will be enough to ease anxiety about the implementation of reforms.
The implementation of the three laws will likely play out differently, community to community, according to Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.
That’s because the state’s existing governance structure, which has “277 individual school districts,” is dysfunctional, Francis says. Consequently, each district has “dissimilar capabilities and resources.”
Francis says rolling out pre-K and early college programs would have been easier if the state had dealt with how districts are organized and governed first. Act 46, the state’s school district consolidation law, forces school districts to merge into larger units. The goal of the new law is to help communities share educational resources and costs.
“I wish that we had contended with the Act 46 initiative first because it is intended to create school systems that are better able to respond to the inevitable pressures that come as we try to do better and better for our children,” Frances says.
The simultaneous implementation of all three laws is “challenging for our systems to respond to,” he said.
Act 77: Worth the wait
School districts were already digging into Act 77 – also known as the flexible pathways bill – when Acts 166 and 46 were later passed. Act 77 includes an Early College Program that began in 2014 and provides early college admission for students who get a full year of college credit while completing their senior year of high school.
The state picks up 87 percent of the tab and the college must accept the payment as full tuition. There is also a dual enrollment component that allows high school juniors and seniors to take two college courses a year, as well as a career ready component.
Initially, the plan was for the state to pay full freight in 2014 and 2015, and then share the cost with local high schools in 2016. Since then, the state has offered to continue full payment to relieve the burden on communities.
But the provision of Act 77 with arguably the biggest statewide impact is a new program known as Personalized Learning Plans. Schools are required to prepare a personalized learning plan for each student in grades 7-12 in current school year. Implementation, however, isn’t on schedule in many communities.
Nichols said the Agency of Education is working with districts to help them adopt the new program. Schools in the Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union are struggling to find time (and money) for teacher training.
“We are pulling teachers out to train with our curriculum folks three or four more times,” Nichols says. “First they have to identify key proficiencies in each content area then we have to figure out how to measure the proficiencies, with what rubric – that is a lot of work. We either have to bring teachers in in the summer or take them out of class and pay for substitutes.”
The schools in the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union have found this transition has been smooth because the supervisory union is working with other districts in the region. Last year, Ronald Ryan, the superintendent and other administrators participated in a 10-day statewide training that became a catalyst for regional work on Act 77 implementation, according to Kristin Benway, director of special services.
Ryan is confident that the schools will make progress on personalized learning plans, but he said it puts an additional burden on teaching staff.
“There has been a lot of time commitment on the part of teachers, administrators and guidance counselors to have things available and up and running and working,” Benway said.
Ultimately, educators are excited about Act 77 and feel it will really improve schooling. “It will be a lot more fun to teach and certainly a lot more fun to learn,” said Nichols.
Universal pre-K: Good policy, bad timing
With the passage of Act 166, all Vermont school districts are responsible for providing 10 hours of universal pre-K, 35 weeks a year for all 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds who are not already in kindergarten. Pre-K programs were supposed to start this year, but policymakers allowed districts to delay implementation until the fall of 2016. Some districts went ahead with the original schedule.
While education officials agree that early education is important to the future success of children in the school system, implementing the new law under a swinging budgetary scythe is causing concerns.
In Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union, only one school district is operating a pre-K program. The rest must transition now and some administrators are wishing schools hadn’t waited as they bump up against the spending caps in Act 46.
Superintendent Ryan said that they could have implemented pre-K last year, but they decided to wait. “Now we have to deal with Act 46 and AGP coming into play,” Ryan said.
Budgets in the coming year will increase by $250,000 for new early education teachers and instructional assistants, and that additional cost could hurt districts that want to stay under the cap.
“In light of all the new demands going on this was not great timing when you have new initiatives,” Benway said. “Being asked to hold the line financially is really hard when you are looking at educating an additional 200 students and adding two new grade levels.”
Francis, the head of the state superintendents association, points to another complication. Act 166 fosters partnerships between public schools and private providers of early learning services, but “that has a significant cost associated with it.”
“There are places that have historically operated pre-K within public schools but because of the notion of universality and tuition payments to private providers, we find school districts operating pre-K and paying tuition in an arrangement that is not consistent from year-to-year,” Francis said.
Enrollment counts should cover the cost of expansion but when districts are both operating programs and paying tuition to private providers, the services often cost more, Francis explains. “So in terms of the measured dollars, Act 166 is a new cost obligation in some places.”
Addison Northwest Supervisory Union has not yet put pre-K programs in place. Canning said schools in the supervisory union could absorb 122 new pre-K students, and schools don’t have the capacity to serve them right now.
“The stress on our budget is the unknown,” Canning said. “We don’t know how many kids to plan for.” She expects the allowable growth provision to drive conversations about priorities for local school budgets.
In some schools, that means cutting programs or staff in order to add pre-K and stay within each district’s allowable growth percentage.
Many have said that’s like “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Act 46: A necessary time suck
Act 46, arguably one of the most significant pieces of education legislation passed in Vermont in many years, sets a laudable goal for all students to succeed through the creation of sustainable governance units that encourage equal access to quality educational opportunities statewide at a price that parents, voters and taxpayers value.
“This work is very purposeful, but it is hard to accomplish those goals when you are both trying to build the plane and fly it at the same time,” Francis said.
Franklin Northeast, Addison-Rutland and Addison Northwest are in various stages of merger planning. Superintendents say they have spent hundreds of hours on the process since June.
Under Act 46, districts set up study committees and create a merger plan and articles of agreement that must be approved by the State Board of Education. Once a plan is in place, districts are to hold community forums before voting day. If voters approve, then the merger moves forward.
In Franklin Northeast a supervisory union committee voted 8-to-1 to unify. Under the plan, local school districts will be able to offer more programs to students and garner at least $3.5 million in savings over five years.
“I’ve spent a couple hundred hours on Act 46 myself,” Nichols said. “If you allow the law to do what it is supposed to do it will create more educational opportunity for kids across the state, give more local control to those that think they will lose it because now they have no say at all,” said Nichols.
But Nichols says the timeline has been tough because they need voter approval by July 2016 in order to take advantage of tax incentives.
Addison-Rutland’s plan has been approved by a study committee and the State Board of Education. The vote for communities is set for April 12.
“It has taken a lot of time and energy on the part of the community as well as my office staff providing data and working with the communities to make sure we get that report submitted and the articles of agreement approved,” said Ryan. “It has not been an easy process. It is brand new territory for a lot of people.”
Ryan said the aggressive timeline is “tough,” and has required twice monthly meetings since July. “We are beginning our community forums next week and there are six of them in six towns,” he said. The school board also has to update communications in print and on the website during the process.
Ryan says merging the six towns will give students access to special programs and provide much more flexibility to move staff between schools.
In Addison Northwest, school boards are focused on equity for students in an environment of declining enrollments, Canning says.
“We are in an accelerated study school district …there is a lot of enthusiasm among my boards. It makes so much sense for our system to unify and share resources,” she said.
Canning said she has a “carousel” meeting plan that allows her to cut down the number of monthly meetings she normally attends from four or five to one. All the boards meet on one site and hold a supervisory union meeting before breaking up into smaller meetings. “It is a fast turnaround, but I don’t feel the stress,” she said enthusiastically.
Caps and trade offs
The convergence of the deadlines for Act 77, Act 166 and Act 46 under new spending caps has been complicated for schools.
“I would like to see the caps change,” said Canning, “it is a distraction right now to the work of the study committee. We are trying to find better ways to serve kids in a cost effective way and laying caps on top of the unification conversations going on aren’t doing any good.”
Francis recognizes that a desire for short term cost containment was behind the allowable growth provision in the law, but he insists that the real savings will be found through merging school systems.
“The caps aren’t useful to the implementation of Act 77, Act 166 or to Act 46, period,” Francis said.
He says lawmakers should give communities time to put reforms in place before demanding immediate cost reductions.
Nichols said he wouldn’t mind if lawmakers went on vacation. “If we actually focused on what we have right now for the next decade: expanding preschool numbers, providing rich options through Act 77, reorganizing governance structures to make sense and rid us of duplication, let us work on the things we feel passionate about that help all students learn.”