GOVERNOR PHIL SCOTT DISCUSSES EDUCATION REVITALIZATION AT BRATTLEBORO CHAMBER OF COMMERCE

30 April 2018

Brattleboro, Vt. –  Governor Phil Scott today addressed members of the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce and broader community, highlighting the urgent need to revitalize Vermont’s K-12 education system.

Since his inaugural address, Scott has highlighted Vermont’s shifting demographics, including student enrollments that have declined by nearly 30,000 in the last 20 years, and has put forward a number of proposals to address this challenge by increasing efficiency and improving quality with a cradle-to-career continuum of learning.

Scott outlined the goals of a forthcoming policy package – one that uses ideas previously presented by the Administration, Legislature and education stakeholders – to prevent property tax rate increases, while implementing system reforms designed to improve efficiency, allowing for increased investment in educational opportunities without increasing education taxes.

Below is a full transcript of his address.

Governor Scott: Thank you all for having me here today, it’s great to be in Brattleboro. After this event, I’m going to visit Grace Cottage Hospital, so I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the work of the Hospital, AT&T and my Department of Public Service and Agency of Commerce to ensure reinforced and enhanced wireless coverage for the hospital.

I know with the likely closing of CoverageCo, this continues to be a concern for the whole region, and my team has been working hard to identify potential options. But I’m pleased we have implemented a solution a Grace Cottage and the customers of a major carrier will be able to have service while CoverageCo is operational.

***

On my first day as Governor, I issued an executive order outlining the strategic goals of my Administration.  

They are: to grow the economy, make Vermont more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable. Three very simple principles, which guide us in every policy and every decision we make.  

As we work toward these goals, we have to recognize three numbers that sum up our challenges fairly well: 6 – 3 – and 1. For years we saw, on average, six fewer workers in our workforce, three fewer kids in K-12, and – certainly the most concerning – nearly one baby born to addiction, every single day. 

My agenda is focused on addressing these things, from expanding our workforce with investment in training and recruitment, to making Vermont more affordable with a budget that doesn’t raise taxes and fees, eliminating the tax on social security benefits and lowering workers compensation rates, to investment in preventative health, mental health and clean water.

We’re doing a lot of good work in Montpelier. We’ve reduced workers compensation and unemployment insurance costs.  We’ve held the line on taxes and fees in our first year so Vermonters and businesses have a chance to keep more of what they earn.  We’ve increased the efficiency of government and reduced cost growth by tens of millions of dollars. Among other achievements in just 16 months, and I’m very proud of my team for putting progress ahead of politics. 

But rather than going through a laundry list of these initiatives, I want to focus today on education.

***

I’ll start with school safety, an issue that’s created a lot of emotional and passionate debate.

In February – just days after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida – we learned of a very real and similar plot here in Vermont. Thanks to two individuals who spoke up after a very concerning text exchange, law enforcement was able to make an arrest, before anyone was harmed. Only by the grace of God did we have a positive outcome.

After reading the affidavit outlining this individual’s plans, the reality of how close we came to a tragedy like Florida really caused me to do some soul searching.

I’ve hunted and fished my entire life. I’ve got a safe full of guns, including the one I got when I was 13.

And, to be honest, as a state senator, Lt. Governor and Governor, I never felt the need to change our gun laws here in Vermont.

Even immediately after Parkland, I believed – since we were such a small, tight knit state – that we were different and somewhat insulated from the violence the rest of the world was seeing.

But I was wrong – and that’s not always easy to admit.

In this case it wasn’t a question of “if” this shooting was going to take place – it was just a question of which day.

He had planned it for months without anyone being aware. He had a “kill list” and kept a journal entitled “The Journal of an active shooter” along with books about Columbine. His goal was to have more kills than Virginia Tech. As a reminder, the death toll at Virginia Tech was 32, which made it the 5th deadliest in U.S. history.  

I’ve said many times, I believe public safety is the primary function of any government. It rises to the top and is our number one responsibility. And, as Governor, that responsibility starts with me and I take it very seriously – regardless of the political ramifications.

***

As a result of these recent events, I worked with my team to identify ways we can better protect our kids and communities. Within a week of the Parkland shooting and the Fair Haven situation, I put forward an action plan focused on school safety, access to guns, and building stronger communities.

We started with school safety, immediately launching a statewide review of all schools with state and local law enforcement, and a report was delivered to me last week. The review found we have strong protocols in place, but we also have some shortcomings.

That’s why I proposed $5 million to support improvements – and I appreciate the Legislature’s willingness to work with me on this.

To continue this work, I’ve signed an executive order creating a Community Violence Prevention Task Force. This group will identify policy changes to enhance safety and reduce violence in our communities.

***

Finally, as I’m sure many of you know, I signed three gun safety bills into law. 

With S.221, we’ll provide Vermonters with a lifesaving tool to help reduce gun tragedies, such as suicides or murders. And it’s already being used to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

H.422 gives victims of domestic violence – who’ve endured unthinkable abuses – added protections, and a greater sense of security.

Both new laws had unanimous support from both sides of the aisle and in both the House and Senate… as well as consensus among most sportsmen and victims’ groups.

The third bill was S.55, which includes gun safety provisions relating to background checks, bump stocks, magazine capacity, and safety training requirements for those purchasing guns under the age of 21.

Now, this bill was admittedly more contentious. But, contrary to what you may have heard – because facts do matter – S.55 does not take away anyone’s guns. Nor does it take away magazines of any size that you own now, or purchase in Vermont before October 1.

I want to be absolutely clear: I believe these measures will make a difference. And I firmly believe each and every one of them is consistent with both the United States and Vermont Constitutions.

Discussions around these measures have been difficult, emotional and complex. These ingredients usually lead to inaction. But as I said when I signed them, this is not the time to do what’s easy – it’s the time do what’s right.

I know I’ve disappointed many – some, right here in this room – and I may lose support over my decision to sign these bills. But the alternative was to do nothing, and that was simply not acceptable to me.

If we don’t try to reduce the possibility of a tragedy here in Vermont, like Parkland, Virginia Tech, Orlando, Sandy Hook, Dallas or Charleston – and the list goes on and on.

If we don’t even try to prevent another death from domestic violence and another child growing up without a parent, and if we don’t try to reduce suicide and the pain it leaves behind, then in my mind, I would have failed all Vermonters.  And that is why I made the decision to act.  

***

That brings me to my next topic: Education reform. This may seem like an odd transition but let me explain.

As I just outlined, I had long-felt that we didn’t need any changes to our gun laws – that our existing system was sufficient. But, I had to accept the reality of the situation we faced. I had to have the courage to tell people who supported me – people who are now calling me a traitor as I stand in line in the grocery store and the gas station, or protest me at events I’m invited to – that I had gotten it wrong, and we need to be willing to do more, even when it means changing the status quo, rethinking the way we’ve always done things, standing up to special interests, and changing views we’ve held for decades.

On education issues, I am asking legislators in the majority party to have just a little bit of that kind of objectivity and courage.

I believe we all share the goal to provide our children with the best possible education. But the reality is, we have an incredibly inefficient K-through-12 education system that’s diverting resources from educational opportunities for our kids – meaning while we have great schools her in Vermont, we’re not producing the best outcomes possible given our high spending. It’s not increasing opportunities, improving results or reducing inequality.  

But, just like we built consensus and found a balance between Second Amendment rights and gun safety reforms, we can forge a path that offers more and better educational opportunities in a way that’s more efficient, so our kids are getting the most value out of every dollar, and the investment is more sustainable and affordable for taxpayers.

This will require my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to step outside of their politics of the past. I’m asking lawmakers to accept the reality that if we don’t do something differently, our kids will suffer, because education quality will suffer as more and more money is diverted away from them and into an old and inefficient system.

Here are some of those facts:

First, we have an education system that was built for a much larger student population. Twenty years ago, we were educating about 103,000 kids. Today it’s 76,000 – almost 30,000 less – and we’re spending $1.7 billion to do so.

In that same period, the average staff to student ratio – and that’s total staff, not just teachers – has become an astounding 1 staff member for every 4.25 students, by far the lowest in the country. 

There are schools all around the state – many of them just 5, 10 or 15 miles from others in the same predicament – each operating class rooms that are half the size, or sometimes even smaller, than they were 20 years ago.  

If I gave you $1.7 billion and asked you to design the nation’s best education system for 76,000 kids, I dare say it wouldn’t look anything like what we have today. Moreover, student count is expected to continue to drop, and will be below 70,000 by 2026.

Second, education is the single largest expenditure in state government. As much as we complain about rising health care costs, it’s even outpacing growth in that area.

Third, these costs aren’t translating to better outcomes because much of the cost increase is going into preserving an outdated and inefficient system or into expanding opportunities in communities that can afford tax hikes, while those districts who can’t afford them get by with the basics. I’ll come back to this regressive and growing inequality in a moment.

Looking at the “National Assessment of Educational Progress” – which is one of the few ways to compare performance in Vermont to national averages – Vermont students performed about 2 percentage points better than the national average, yet our per pupil spending is nearly double the national average.

Fourth, the Brigham decision and Act 60 were both about equal access to education funding, yet opportunities, outcomes and funding remain alarmingly unequal.

We have some schools offering a wide range of foreign languages, cutting-edge science, technology and engineering classes – not to mention, sports, drama and music programs. And we have other schools who can’t offer any of these opportunities.

We have statewide test results that suggest, the substantial increase in education spending over the last 20 years has not closed the achievement gaps in our schools. 

And we have districts which trimmed programs for kids to restrain budget growth, only to learn their tax rates are going up because other schools have increased their spending dramatically.

Finally, while we pride ourselves on local government – something I believe in as well – our statewide funding formula, and a single state Education Fund make it hard to deny that Montpelier inserted itself into local education decisions when Act 60 passed in the 90’s.

***

It’s clear to me that the structure and inefficiency of our system is eroding opportunities for our kids.

Think of it this way: Every dollar we spend on underutilized space in our schools is a dollar that’s not being spent expanding opportunities and outcomes for a child.

Further, ever-growing property taxes – which are used to fund K-12 Education – are contributing to an affordability crisis that impacts our ability to invest in other areas of education, like childcare and higher ed, as well as human services and other priorities like cleaning up our lakes.

That’s why, since my Inaugural Address, I’ve called for reforms that will provide savings which can be re-invested in a cradle-to-career system, which will not only provide quality educational opportunities at every stage of life, but make Vermont an education destination, attracting working families, so we can rebuild our workforce and grow the economy.

Over the last 17 months, I’ve put forward dozens of ideas, proposals and initiatives to achieve these goals, including 18 ideas to start this year

With the Legislature’s support, we made some progress last year –  increasing investments in our Child Care Financial Assistance Program by $2.5 million and in the Vermont State College System by $3 million.

And we did that without raising a single state tax or fee – including statewide property tax rates – for the first time in memory.

But, thus far, the Legislature has not been willing to move forward with additional steps. Even as we face another education tax increase Vermonters can’t afford, their primary focus has been on a formula change that simply asks taxpayers to pay out of a different pocket.

***

But we must act. That’s why this week, I’ll introduce another path forward, one that intentionally uses ideas already on the table from my team, the Legislature and other education stakeholders.

This package – if the Legislature agrees to work together on it – will strengthen our education system, and is designed to achieve the following:

  • Fully fund the increased investments local voters approved on Town Meeting Day, while closing the remaining gap in our Education Fund so you don’t see your state education taxes rise this year;
  • Stabilize statewide education tax rates for 5-years;
  • Generate hundreds-of-millions in savings over 5 years that can be reinvested in early education, K-12, technical education, higher ed, and/or lowering tax rates;
  • Allow for increased investment in educational opportunities – averaging about 3.25% per year, for 5-years – without raising tax rates; and
  • Offer a stable 5-year plan to allow local school districts to take full advantage of the governance changes made under Act 46 and do some real structural reform at the community level. 

This is a transformative plan aimed at improving educational opportunities. And, again, we can do all this with a combination of ideas the Legislature and Administration have already offered.

As we introduce this in the coming days, it is my sincere hope that Montpelier can put partisan politics and gamesmanship aside, focus on progress over process, and have the courage to recognize our urgent need to move beyond the policies of the past to improve the state’s economic and demographic trajectory, so we can build a more prosperous future.

***

This is true of most of the issues we face, as I’ve spoken about a lot lately, which is the growth of political polarization. 

Too many of our fellow citizens – on both sides of every issue – have given up on listening, deciding to no longer consider other opinions, viewpoints or perspectives.

Our national dialogue has been reduced to angry, hateful and vicious social media posts on both sides of the aisle, where facts and details no longer seem to matter.

The idea that consensus and compromise is somehow unacceptable – that one side is always totally right or all wrong, that we can't debate the issues and find common ground or simply agree to disagree respectfully – there is a winner-take-all mentality. 

These things are hurting our nation, and our way of life. 

This is not a new trend and it's not related to any one issue or one party. Yet, in my opinion, we've reached a dangerous tipping point where our debates and activism have turned intensely and unduly personal. Sometimes, downright hateful. 

Online insults, slurs and angry exchanges between people who've never met, are far too common. Many write things online, hiding behind their keyboard in their homes or basement that they'd never say face to face. In my view, it’s cowardly.

We can’t forget, our children are watching how we engage with one another. So, it begs the questions: What are they seeing? What kind of role models are we?

We must do better, and we can.

I know, I’m not alone. I know there are thousands of Vermonters who feel the way I do and who are great role models – many right here in this room – but we need more of you.

I say this today as a reminder, for myself and others, because I think it’s so important recognize the growing divide, so we can work together on complex issues, like those I outlined today.

***

I want to thank you for your work to build a strong community, and strong economy here Brattleboro. Your efforts are appreciated, and I’ll continue to work for you in Montpelier.

- END -

Contact Information

Office of Governor Phil Scott
109 State Street, Pavilion
Montpelier, VT 05609
Phone: 802 828-3333 (TTY: 800 649-6825)
Fax: 802 828-3339

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