Declining Enrollment, Part 1: Holcombe Says It's Time To Talk Education Equity

Apr 6, 2015

The student population in Vermont is trending decidedly downward. Since peaking at 107,000 students in 1997, the number of students in the Green Mountain State has fallen to around 88,000 today.

Yet, it's been pointed out that the number of teachers and staff in the state remains the same. While some small schools have closed over the last few years, many are still operating with fewer and fewer students.

While property tax rates have emerged as a theme in this recent legislative sessions, Vermont's Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has raised questions beyond the costs to taxpayers for maintaining smaller schools. She's concerned about the quality of education in the schools with the smallest enrollments. We're looking at those ideas all this week in our series Declining Enrollment.

To kick off the series, Secretary Holcombe joined VPR for a conversation about small schools, consolidation, community priorities and education equity.

Wertlieb: This controversy seems counter-intuitive to me in some ways. People from larger cities, for example, they might look at smaller schools and say, 'Why are you complaining? This is ideal to have smaller class sizes, it's better for teachers in controlling the class, they get more direct interaction with students, big cities schools are so overcrowded.' What is wrong with having smaller schools in Vermont?

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having smaller schools in Vermont ... It's certainly something that people look for. I think the question is: how small? And is there a too small?" - Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe

Holcombe: I don't think there's anything wrong with having smaller schools in Vermont. I think it's actually something that people value. It's certainly something that people look for. I think the question is: how small? And is there a too small? One of the challenges we see is with this declining enrollment that you reference at the beginning, because we have a per-pupil tax formula, the access to resources that districts have and schools have to support their educational programing declines when their student numbers decline. And they're really pushed into a situation where they have to make cuts. And if you're a big school of 400 kids, for example, it's easier to adjust your staffing in response to declines in enrollment. But when you're a very, very small school, you begin to cut programs that people really think of as integral to our school experience, things like foreign language. National research really thinks of 200 as a small school. It doesn't think of 40 as a small school. We're not really small schools by national standards, we're really what we would call micro-schools.

Wertlieb: Every time talk turns to small schools, or school consolidation, some people get a little tense because they want to retain local control. They might even have an emotional attachment to their local school. Maybe they went to that school themselves. What would you say to people with those concerns?

Holcombe: The argument I hear most earnestly from our communities is, 'If we lose our small elementary school, we'll lose our community.' But I think the challenge is, when you've already lost 75 percent of the students who were enrolled in your school, you're already in a challenging position. And then the real question is how do you provide for educating your children in a way that gives them opportunity and access to the kinds of learning they need to be able to be successful and stay and work and thrive as members of the communities, as citizens and in economic life so that we have a future as a state? Because if we so degrade the opportunities we provide our kids, we're really not viable either as a communities or as states, and I think that's the challenge.  

"National research really thinks of 200 as a small school. It doesn't think of 40 as a small school. We're not really small schools by national standards, we're really what we would call micro-schools."

Wertlieb: Your agency released a report recently saying that bigger school districts provide better educational quality to students. I think you were just speaking to that, and the Legislature is considering requiring districts to at least 1,100 students. Can you talk about the difference between larger school districts and larger schools themselves? Why is having a larger district important?

Holcombe: I think that's a really important point, and we understand how people feel about their local buildings, but there are a lot of costs that just go into just operating as a single district, a school district. Almost 70 percent of our districts have an average daily membership smaller than 300 students. And 30 percent our districts actually have a membership of 100 or fewer students. And 21 percent of our schools have enrollment of 100 or less. And those very small districts with very few kids have all the same obligations under federal policy and state policy that very large systems do. For example, a very small district with only 20 students in it still has to pay for a separate single district audit, at the same time as they're struggling to maintain breadth of offering in things like arts.

Wertlieb: What is a district audit?

Holcombe: It's a financial audit that basically ensures that your district is managing funds in ways that are consistent with federal requirements to be eligible for federal funding, including special education funding and state funding. And that audit is being conducted in every single district in the state of Vermont. And when I hear stories like that what I think is, 'Gee think how much art you could buy with that $8,000?' Instead, we're going to tie it up in auditing. If this district, which is in a supervisory union with a number of other similarly sized districts, had one school board, but made a regional district that embraced all of these small schools, they could move some of those district costs up a level and share them with others. And that would free up a tremendous amount of resources to actually support schools and classrooms, which is where we really want to spend our dollars. Instead, we're spending it on overhead.

"A very small district with only 20 students in it still has to pay for a separate single district audit, at the same time as they're struggling to maintain breadth of offering in things like arts."

Wertlieb: That report that you recently released said that elementary schools work best at 300-500 students, high schools are best at between 500-900 students. And if that the the optimal size high school size, can Vermont ever really get there? We currently have some high schools with just 55 students in them.

Holcombe: I think it's really important to qualify that those numbers are based on national research on school effectiveness. Obviously, in Vermont, that's not a realistic target for some communities. I think it does beg the question of whether a high school of 55 or 60 students can effectively provide the range of opportunities that we need to be able to provide our students. I think it's important to remember that not making a choice on governance is making a choice. There are parts of the state that are currently, I think, on the brink of closure. And the public one is Concord, which I think is now looking at closing it's high school. But certainly we are hearing from other small towns where their choice is either to close or to forge some kind of partnership with a neighboring town. That's something that exists independently of any the agency does or the Legislature does.

Wertlieb: School choice is something that seems to be implemented in a very regionally in Vermont. Some towns send their students to a specific private school on tax payer funds because that's the choice their district has made, some towns send students to any school they want, public or private, other students can only apply through their public school to go to another public school, and they may or may not be able to change schools. Why isn't there a more unified system regarding school choice in Vermont?

"This problem of rising tax rates and cost is a shared problem. It really doesn't matter what kind of system you've picked. We're all feeling this pressure around funding and supporting education."

Holcombe: We think of it more as "tuitioning," and if you look at the history of Vermont, and you look at where the towns that tuition are situated within the state, what it really points to is that we're really two states. We're a more urban state that sort of hovers around the Chittenden County area and then we're a highly rural state where towns have never had the population level to support their own community high schools, and so the way we educated our children historically was through what we called "historical academies." These were public schools with a different form of governance was the way they were referred to in statute, and children often traveled to the school and boarded at the school for the week and then came back to their rural communities at the end of the week. These are the ones that are well known: Burr and Burton, St. Johnsbury, Lyndon, Bellows Free used to be an independent academy and it's since gone public. But the variation you described is really a legacy of that tradition, that historical tradition.  

Wertlieb: Is it serving the state well though, those different choices and different ways it's spread around?

Holcombe: I guess there will be as many answers to that question as there are people in Vermont. When we look at the performance data for the high schools, the historical academies and the public high schools, the actual performance data is statistically equivalent. There's no difference in tested outcomes for students in these two kinds of systems. So I think arguably you could say that they are both good choices, and which ever model you're in you seem to be getting comparable amounts of education at least in English language, arts and math. This problem of rising tax rates and cost is a shared problem. It really doesn't matter what kind of system you've picked. We're all feeling this pressure around funding and supporting education.

Wertlieb: Secretary Holcombe, you mentioned that in some ways Vermont is really two states, the urban state and the more rural state and a lot of the rural parts of Vermont struggle with poverty. And I wonder what kind of grade you would give Vermont's schools for meeting the needs of its lowest income students?

"When I see schools choosing class sizes of six over, for example, a summer program that continues learning throughout the year, I do question our commitment to equity. We need to be addressing these gaps."

Holcombe: I actually think we have a fair amount of work to do when we look at the research on children in poverty and school outcomes and achievement gaps. When kids are in school they hold their own. Schools seem to keep them learning and growing. Where students lose ground is when they're out of school. It's in the summer months and it's after school. Particularly in the elementary years. So when I see schools choosing class sizes of six over, for example, a summer program that continues learning throughout the year, I do question our commitment to equity. We need to be addressing these gaps. We know that child poverty is rising in the state. We know that the children in protective custody are younger than ever before. About 41 percent of them are between the ages of zero and five. As of this month, we had over 100 infants under age one is custodial care. 

The problem with this is we know those early years are absolutely critical to developing the social emotional and self-regulation and the executive function skills that children need to succeed, whether it's in school or in life. I think Vermont is ripe for a really hard conversation about what it means to serve and protect our most vulnerable children. And one of the indicators that we've been worried about is that Vermont is now the state with the highest proportion of children who are eligible for services for being emotionally disabled. You know, children of opiate addicted parents or children who are living in extremely difficult financial circumstances, these are the children who are most at risk of developing these emotional disabilities down the road.

We need to figure out a way to prioritize that so that we can put our resources where they're going to matter and make it possible for these children to arrive at school ready to learn so that we aren't remediating and trying to fix problems after they're already created. So I do think that we need to have a hard conversation as a state about what equity really is, whether providing equal resources to towns based on proportion to pay is enough, if that's really going to achieve our equity goals given that fact that we are an increasingly stratified state with a growing proportion of our students living in poverty.

Declining Enrollment is a week-long look at the challenges facing Vermont's education system. Explore the rest of our coverage here.