In 1968, the Vermont State Board of Education published its Vermont Design for Education, a document that described the concept of making the personal learning aspirations of students the focus of the education process. Since that time, many changes have occurred to the Vermont education system that have distracted Vermont from achieving this vision.
One of the most significant changes was Act 60 of 1997, a major revision to Vermont’s education funding system because of the Brigham decision. Although the Brigham decision settled the issue that the state, not locals, was ultimately responsible for the education of Vermont’s students, the new education funding system designed through Act 60 did not envision changes to the education delivery system itself; it was a patch for the legacy governance structure that was established in the late 1880s.
The statewide education funding system created under Act 60 and the successor legislation of Act 68, however, did expose the inefficiencies of the old governance structure. The new funding system caused education spending to increase, as districts with relatively smaller grand lists could increase their spending levels without seeing significant increases to their tax rates. At about the same time, the number of students in Vermont started to decline following a larger demographic trend witnessed throughout northern New England. This combination of increases in education spending coupled with declines in the number of students caused significant pressure on the education funding system since the diffused nature of the Vermont’s education governance structure was not able to respond to these challenges in a systematic manner.
During the same period, federal education policy in the form of the No Child Left Behind Act, put new requirements on states to develop school accountability systems. These policies created new challenges for Vermont’s education governance structure which in many cases was comprised of school districts too small to yield valid accountability data. The data did identify, however, a persistent equity gap in student achievement between students in poverty and their non-poverty peers.
Faced with challenges in affordability, equity, and accountability, policy makers increasingly began to focus on school district governance reform.
Starting with Act 153 of 2010, the General Assembly began to formally explore the incentivization of school district consolidation. Act 153 was largely voluntary, however, resulting in few district mergers. Act 153 did require the centralization of certain school district services at the supervisory union level which forced many school districts to adjust how they provided these services and to seek greater efficiencies by sharing services with neighboring districts. After several statewide conversations about governance reform including the Green Mountain Imperative in 2015 which was co-sponsored by the Vermont Business Roundtable, the Legislature passed Act 46 in 2015, which called for a less-than-voluntary approach to school district governance reform.
Although the jury is still out on Act 46, one common thread throughout all these policy initiatives is they do not include a central design or focus. From Act 60 to Act 46, the common policy approach has been to tinker with the system and hope for the best. This lack of policy coherence has led to a significant amount of “initiative fatigue” in Vermont’s education system. A similar amount of systems fatigue has been observed in the delivery of related human resource systems such as child services, early learning and care, and mental health. This concern about systems capacity points to a need to rethink education, social, and economic policies to provide a more effective and integrated approach, especially considering Vermont’s current and future demographic challenges.
The Demographic and Efficiency Context
Vermont is facing a very challenging demographic situation. Our K-12 infrastructure was built for more than 100,000 students, but enrollment has declined to 76,000 in the last twenty years – a decline of about 27,000 students. All counties have experienced drastic reductions in traditional K-12 enrollment since 2004. Five counties have experienced K-12 enrollment losses of over 20%, with Essex County having lost over 40% of its K-12 enrollment. Only Franklin County and Lamoille County have lost less than 10% of their K-12 enrollment, and the U.S. Department of Education predicts Vermont student count will drop below 70,000 by 2026.
Unfortunately, Vermont’s education spending has not decreased at the same rate. According to the National Education Association, in the 2015-2016 school year Vermont’s per pupil expenditure was $23,557, or $2,000 more per pupil than New York who spent the second most. This compares to a national average of $11,787 per pupil. This should not be surprising since 80% of school district costs are tied directly to personnel, and Vermont’s school employee staffto-student ratio has shrunk to 4.25 to 1, the lowest in the nation.
There is no simple policy solution for this complex situation. Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University might describe this context as a series of “adaptive challenges” (Heifetz, 1994). According to Heifetz (1994), adaptive challenges require new solutions, solutions that require a consideration of what must be given up to thrive relative to what cannot be compromised to be successful in the future. Basically, Vermont’s education delivery will need to adapt to the current demographic context to be successful. We will need to redesign our education delivery system, not just make incremental adjustments. This will mean taking a different approach to developing education policy than has been used in the past.
Representative Strategy vs. Design Strategy
Two strategies often used to create policies are representative strategies and design strategies. A representative strategy is often used when a solution to a problem already exists, and when affirmation of stakeholder values or current practices supersedes the need for change. Through a representative strategy, each major stakeholder is invited to participate in creating the new policy approach to ensure continuity with the past and to ensure stakeholder buy-in during implementation. This has been the typical approach to Vermont education policy development.
A design strategy, on the other hand, is more useful when there is a need to create a new policy solution. With a design strategy, a small design team is assembled with the goal of rapidly creating a viable design prototype. Membership on the design team is not necessarily representative, but rather determined by the ability of the chosen team members to rapidly produce a high-quality prototype, a prototype that can then be shared broadly among various stakeholder groups for feedback and reaction.
To focus stakeholder feedback using a design strategy, essential design elements for the prototype are developed. Stakeholder feedback is measured against these desired design elements as opposed to comparing it to perceptions of the current system since by definition the new system is designed to be different. For example, if an architect was designing a new house for a client, the architect would first seek to determine the client’s essential design elements for a new house (e.g. three bathrooms, fieldstone fireplace, etc.) that need to be incorporated into the new design. A consideration of the design elements relative to the client’s current house might not be relevant, especially if the design of the current house has been deemed to been inadequate to meet the client’s future needs.
A design strategy approach is more applicable to the Vermont context since Vermont will be facing a series of adaptive challenges that will require new solutions. In the case of education policy, a design prototype would be in the form of a blueprint that includes the overarching design elements and a description of the desired end state. From there, a series of “design challenges” would be organized to address specific technical areas and to further refine the model based on focused stakeholder feedback.