Senate approves ‘most important education bill’ of the session

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(Host intro) The Senate has given its final approval to legislation that supporters call the most important education bill of the session.

The bill eliminates the State Board of Education and allows the governor to directly appoint the commissioner of education.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Backers of the bill said it’s time to make the state’s education system more accountable to Vermonters. But opponents argued the changes could lead to chaos. The Senate gave its support to the bill by a vote of 17 to 12.

The legislation does away with the state Board of Education, it elevates the Department of Education to agency status and it gives the governor the authority to appoint the commissioner of education.

Right now the governor chooses a commissioner from a list of candidates selected by the board. However, the governor does appoint all members of the board.

Addison Senator Harold Giard said the bill is desperately needed.

(Giard) "Mr. President, we’ve got some huge issues in education. It needs a rudder. It needs direction. It needs a coach. It has none of that at the moment. The present system cannot create that, it cannot create leadership within the system. I’m convinced, and the Senate Committee of Education is convinced that politics in education is a good thing. It does move it forward."

(Kinzel) And Essex-Orleans senator Bobby Starr argued that the current system no longer meets the needs of the state.

(Starr) "Therefore things have got to change at the top, at the state level, to try to get it some accountability there. So the whole process has changed in the last 100 years and we’re just in the Education Committee trying to catch up with the times of today."

(Kinzel) But Windsor Senator Dick McCormack said education is one area that should be protected from political trends.

(McCormack) "And this is not just an abstraction. We can imagine various issues in the next couple of years where there will be political forces on various sides of various ideologies. This is not a liberal or conservative concern. I can see people from all political camps demanding that the schools do their bidding more effectively than they are."

(Kinzel) Last week Washington Senator Ann Cummings supported the bill, but over the weekend she had a change of heart.

(Cummings) "Every time you change an administration, are you going to change your educational philosophy? That could wreak havoc in the schools and I think that we need some kind of buffer between the political process and what goes on in our local schools."

(Kinzel) The measure now goes to the House for its consideration. There’s some question if the House is going to have enough time to review the legislation by the end of the session.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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