Commentary: Focus on the students

The first major hurdle of the 2016 legislative session was resolved Saturday when lawmakers approved a tweak to the cost containment threshold in Act 46, last year’s education governance reform bill. The debate echoed many familiar conversations about our school system. There were speeches about declining enrollment, property taxes, and the relationship between state and local government. But what made the 2016 debate remarkable was that many lawmakers discussed the state’s educational system without ever mentioning how our decisions impact Vermont kids.

The irony was not lost on me – earlier in the day, my fourteen-year-old son, Eli, visited the State House on a class fieldtrip from People’s Academy. When they met with me, the students led a discussion about the legalization of marijuana. As we talked, I looked around the room and realized we could learn a lot if we listened to our kids.

The State of Vermont’s obligation to quality student outcomes has been the law of the land for almost two decades. In 1997, educational equity received a boost when the Supreme Court ruled that all kids deserved an equal shot at success. Lawmakers affirmed the court’s ruling by passing Acts 60 and 68 to ensure financial equity across the state’s school districts. We saw improvements for several years. But then something happened. As student population declined in parts of the state, a gulf formed, separating schools and students into the haves and have nots.

The division of students was fundamentally unfair. Something had to change. Act 46 is meant to correct the imbalance. The law provides a framework for communities to choose to expand districts so schools and teachers have the resources to provide a rich learning environment to the children they educate. We’ve seen incredible progress since passage. Communities all over the state are now working with their neighbors to find ways to improve our education system for kids.

In many parts of Vermont, implementation has been an overwhelming success. But for some, it was clear that the cost containment threshold provisions weren’t working as intended. A bipartisan group of lawmakers worked together to craft a solution. Saturday’s agreement settles the issue by reducing penalties for certain districts without removing the cost containment many Vermonters have asked for.

It is time for us to continue the challenge at hand – focusing on kids’ educations and supporting the teachers, administrators and community volunteers who make sure our schools lead the nation. For me, the visit from my son’s People’s Academy class was a reminder of why we’ve made a commitment to public education. All of those students, no matter where they live, should have the same opportunities. That’s why we acted. That is why we must not lose sight of the importance of public investment in education. It’s about the kids.

Rep. Shap Smith, D-Morrisville, is speaker of the Vermont House.

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