My Work on the Education Committee
As a first-term legislator, I was excited to be assigned to the House Education Committee and to serve as its clerk during the 2019–2020 biennium.
In April 2019, I was honored to be appointed by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson to the New England Board of Higher Education, where I serve on the Board of Delegates and the Legislative Advisory Council. In this role, I have the opportunity to learn about shared challenges — and innovative solutions — shared by postsecondary institutions across our six-state region.
Strong public schools are the heart, soul and spirit of Vermont’s communities. And equal access to education—and to the broad range of services and supports that 21st century schools provide—is a vital component of a fair and just society. Whether we’re talking about literacy or aging school buildings or drinking water, in the Education Committee we consider each proposed bill in the context of equity: Will this legislation promote fairness, inclusion and opportunity for all students in Vermont’s preK–12 classrooms?
Before the 2020 Town Meeting break, we focused our work on three key topics: how to improve literacy instruction in grades preK-3 in light of Vermont’s declining test scores, how to streamline our universal preK program (a hybrid model that’s delivered by both public and private providers), and how to address the capital construction and deferred maintenance needs of Vermont’s aging school buildings.
• H.668: Literacy Instruction: After taking extensive testimony, by late February we had developed a bill to support evidence-based, structured literacy instruction for all students — and especially students who struggle — by providing grants to supervisory unions. Recognizing that literacy is a foundational skill, training and coaching would promote best practices for teaching reading in grades preK-3. As of March, this bill had been referred to House Appopriations. H.668 is intended to support and complement the eventual implementation of Act 173 (see below).
• H.209: School Construction: Since Vermont put a moratorium on state school construction aid a decade ago, districts have been deferring maintenance or issuing bonds to pay for projects. Over summer and fall 2019, an informal working group led by the Vermont Superintendents Association compiled a report indicating that the state faces up to $565 million in pending or proposed projects. Initially, H.209 would have established a task force to assess how other states are addressing school construction, and the costs and options for Vermont. It has now been retooled for consideration in August 2020 in light of possible COVID-19 eligible capital costs and referred to Appropriations.
H.935, a bill to clarify oversight and administration of Vermont’s public pre-K program, was referred to Human Services in late February 2020.
After the 2020 Town Meeting break, we turned our attention to helping schools respond to the COVID-19 crisis. We took a lot of powerful testimony from the field, hearing stories about the incredible challenges faced by educators and families during the COVID-19 shutdown … and the heroic way in which our schools and teachers delivered. Our more-tangible work included:
• Allocating $50 million from the state’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to help Vermont’s preK–12 public and approved independent schools cover eligible COVID-related costs for FY20 and FY21 (these funds were tucked into the FY21 first quarter budget: H.961, p44)
• Working with Appropriations and Senate Education to establish a Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont (H.961, p8). This committee will address the urgent needs of the Vermont State Colleges and is also tasked with developing a broader plan for high-quality, affordable and workforce-connected public higher education in Vermont. Reports are due in December 2020, June 2021 and December 2021.
In ongoing work that spans the 2019-2020 biennium, other focus areas include:
• Act 173: Special Education: Passed in 2018, Act 173 will change the way special education is funded and delivered in Vermont. By transitioning from a reimbursement to a census block-grant funding system, Act 173 aims to save money and streamline the system while ensuring that all students who struggle receive instruction from highly skilled teachers. Last year, the State Advisory Panel on Special Education — a requirement of federal law — was revamped in H.140 to be more inclusive of parents and Vermonters with disabilities, following the important advice of “nothing about us, without us.” This language was added to S.326 and signed into law as Act 97. In May 2020, due to COVID-19, we delayed the implementation of Act 173 via S.343, with rulemaking to wrap up by August 2021 and the fiscal transition to start in 2023.
• H.3 (Act 1): Racial and Social Equity: Signed into law in March 2019, this bill creates the Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group. By June 2021, this group must make recommendations to the State Board of Education on preK-12 educational standards that fully recognize the history, contributions and perspectives of ethnic and social groups that have historically been persecuted, discriminated against and marginalized. Act 1 also requires the State Board to report data on hazing, harassment and bullying—disaggregated by incident type and by ethnic group, racial group, religious group, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and English language learner status.
• S.40 (Act 66): Lead in Drinking Water: Signed into law in June 2019, this bill requires all Vermont schools and childcare centers to test their drinking water for lead contamination, and to remediate at an action level at or above 4 parts per billion. Testing was to be completed and results posted on the Vermont Department of Health website by December 31, 2020. I was proud to serve on the House-Senate conference committee that worked out the final version of this bill in May 2019. As of March 2020, 86 percent of childcare facilities and 68 percent of schools had completed sampling, but with buildings closed and DOH staff re-assigned to COVID-19 frontline tasks, the legislature extended the deadline to December 2021 with H.957 in May 2020. To see results as of March 2020, go to: https://leadresults.vermont.gov/.
And for future consideration:
• The study on how Vermont “weights” or calculates the higher cost of educating rural, low-income, secondary, and non-English-language learners was delivered to the legislature this year in a joint hearing with Ways and Means. In its conclusions, the reports raises serious equity and funding issues that will surely need to be considered in the 2021–2022 biennium.
On the General Assembly website, the House Education Committee has a page that contains all of the bills, documents and reports from this session, as well as links to our committee hearings that were broadcast live on YouTube during the COVID-19 statehouse closure. Check it out, and feel free to contact me with any questions about our work.