There are a lot of reasons to oppose school district merger plans for WNESU and WSESU: increased bureaucracy and standardization, no long terms savings, possible loss of school programs, less responsiveness to the needs of individual students and families, loss of school choice, potential forced moving of teachers and students, possible school closures, increased centralization of control in the district office and less flexible school practices, and a slew of potential unintended consequences, the most worrisome of which is the loss of participatory democracy and the character of our communities.
We live in an era when many are frustrated by national politics and what feels like our powerlessness to change policies we find disagreeable. Whether it is corporations or the top 1% or special interests or unfettered presidential power, we citizens feel ever more removed from governance on issues that affect all our lives.
One of the few areas where we still have a voice in Vermont is looking out for the quality of our schools and the future of our children. We vote for our neighbors to serve on school boards, we determine how much we spend on education and the programs we support, we can scrutinize the local school budget and look for creative solutions that enlist the strengths of our community, we can attend school board meetings and we can talk toour board members to have our voices heard. Our board members hire our teachers and administrators and we can serve on hiring committees (and other committees) that can shape the tenor of the school. And maybe most significantly, we can join our neighbors at town meeting to speak face to face with each other about issues that matter not only to our pocketbooks, but to the spirit of our community.
Proponents of school district merger dismiss the importance of our participatory democracy. They note that not that many people come to school board meetings or town meeting. They remind us that we have already lost a lot of control regarding school policies to the powers at the state and national level. And they assume that this loss of democracy is simply the price we have to pay to comply with a state mandated, one-size-fits-all directive that has little evidence of its effectiveness.
I worry that the notion of local control gets misinterpreted as a question of governance rather than educational quality. The ultimate determinant of a student’s educational experience is the quality of teachers, the school principal, and programs at the local level. Student learning is not an abstraction of educational policy or governance—the most effective schools know students well and are responsive to the individual needs of kids and their families. The more bureaucratic and standardized our schools become, the less responsive they can be to the unique needs of the children they serve.
Local control really is about school based responsiveness to the needs of kids, the initiative of teachers, the input of the community, and the leadership of principals to shape an inspiring, dynamic, personalized learning environment that works for every child. Decisions made in the superintendent’s office or by a unified board can’t be based on knowing the uniqueness of our children or the unique needs of individual schools. Our schools give us a venue to shape the character of our community and bring our voices together for a common purpose. Our children are unique—our schools should be as well.
We stand at a precarious time for our democracy. There are many ways in which citizens feel further removed from decisions that affect our lives and our communities. Our local schools, school boards, and town meeting are among the few institutions that continue to provide opportunities for direct citizen voice. These are the traditions that give communities the space to come together, to feel connected, and to make decisions that make a difference for ourselves, for our children, and for the future of the society we wish to see.