This post by Susan Clark first appeared as a Vermont Public Radio commentary on June 5, 2015. You can hear the original commentary here.
A well-known optical illusion shows two silhouetted faces in profile looking at each other. At first, most viewers just see the faces, then comes the sudden realization that there’s a contoured vase between them. Even though this image is only a simple drawing, it’s compelling. It engages us as we focus, and then focus again. The face? Or the vase?
In the education debate, we’ve focused a lot on faces: faces of taxpayers who want spending reduced, faces of children whose educations, we’re warned, range from excellent to below-par.
Consolidation advocates argue that students could benefit from more uniformity in education, and newly regionalized districts would be better able to move around resources and teachers, gaining efficiencies that could slowly save money.
But this law also pays towns to eliminate local school boards. Consider the impacts on the vase of community.
When neighbors work together at the local level to take responsibility for services held in common, we build social capital — a vessel to support our kids. Or to return to our puzzle picture, the vase at the center that defines the faces.
When small schools become a minority voice on a regional board, the school’s future is no longer in local hands.
Meanwhile, eliminating local boards removes a key training ground for democratic leadership — especially for women. And research shows that when we dilute opportunities for participation, citizens turn away.
It’s true that Vermont has many small schools and school boards. But that’s because we live in many small towns. More of our population lives in towns of under 2,500 people than any other state except Maine. And this may be our strength.
Schools function best when community is involved. Public education depends on a public – engaged and willing to invest time, wisdom and dollars.
Too often, Americans think of government as a “they.” But Vermonters consistently view local government as a “we.” Last year, more than 90% of school budgets passed. With our local focus, we can see that they’re all “our” children.
With regionalization, our values may change – and as in much of America, Vermonters’ attitudes may shift from “everybody’s kids” to “nobody’s kids.”
The new law comes with many unknowns. But one thing is sure. It doesn’t protect Vermonters’ sense of community. In fact, it pays us to dismantle local democratic involvement in schools.
It will take vigilance and wisdom to maintain the dual nature of our communities - that elusive, mesmerizing balance between the face and the vase. As with our state motto, Freedom and Unity, both define us.