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Education Secretary Zoie Saunders defends record at confirmation hearing

A woman wearing a blue blazer stands at a podium and speaks into microphones
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Zoie Saunders, a former charter school executive from Florida, at a press conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 22, 2024, where Gov. Phil Scott announced her appointment to lead the Vermont Agency of Education.

Zoie Saunders, Gov. Phil Scott’s polarizing pick to lead the Vermont Agency of Education, sat for her confirmation hearing Tuesday and defended her record before a panel of state senators.

A former strategist for a for-profit charter school company headquartered in Florida, Saunders has come under fire for her scant experience in traditional public schools. Over the course of a 90-minute question-and-answer session before the Senate Education Committee, she repeatedly returned to the same refrain.

“My experience is in public schools. So charters are public schools in every state that I've worked in. They are not independent schools. They are not private schools,” she told lawmakers.

Tuition-free schools of choice, charter schools are publicly financed, but independently governed. For-profit entities called educational management organizations — like Charter Schools USA, where Saunders worked from 2012 to 2019 — are sometimes contracted to manage all day-to-day operations, including curriculum development and educator hiring.

Like Saunders, charter school advocates often say that charter schools are public. But that argument is rejected by public education advocates, who say the very point of charters is to introduce privatization into the public sphere. Indeed, just hours before Saunders’ confirmation hearing, a group of former school board members held a press conference at the Statehouse to protest her appointment.

“[Saunders] has stated that … charter schools are public schools, but they are not. Because they are privately governed. I know the money is public money, but it's privately governed,” said Geo Honigford, a former school board member from South Royalton and past president of the Vermont School Boards Association.

Saunders officially began work as Vermont’s Secretary of Education last week, but her job is subject to Senate confirmation. And while the chamber has traditionally been highly deferential to the executive branch, a substantial number of senators have made clear they intend to vote against her permanent appointment.

“By and large, the idea is that elections have consequences, governors can pick their cabinet,” said Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth, a Democrat. But, he added, it is also the Senate’s role to “advise and consent.”

“If you think about that, it implies that you're not going to always consent — otherwise, why mention consent at all?” said Baruth, who leads the chamber as its president pro tempore.

Baruth said Tuesday he hadn’t yet made up his mind which way he would vote. Democratic leadership in the Senate, he said, is not taking a position on whether or not Saunders should be confirmed, and instead letting the process take its course.

The reaction to Saunders has put Scott, a Republican, on the defensive. A week after he announced his pick, the governor released a statement lambasting lawmakers for “believing misinformation, making assumptions and levying attacks on [Saunders’] character — all without ever having met her or spoken to her.” Pushback about her appointment appeared to be “based on the state she currently lives in, and a cherry-picked part of her resume that’s been turned into a boogeyman,” he wrote.

“Frankly, I’m embarrassed by the message it sends, that a smart, extremely capable professional woman, who has dedicated her career to improving outcomes for kids and addressing inequity for impoverished communities and families, is being villainized,” he added.

But lawmakers critical of Scott’s selection have argued their concerns have nothing to do with her gender or where she’s from. In a recent op-ed, Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, a Progressive from Chittenden County, argued that suggesting as much was “taken directly out of the D.C. GOP handbook” and "meant to distract from the nominee’s deep experience as an executive for a for-profit charter school company that has siphoned public education dollars from students and into the pockets of shareholders.”

Scott has made clear he has no interest in bringing charter schools to Vermont, and Saunders reiterated the same on Tuesday. But critics have argued their concerns are less about charter schools themselves than what her appointment might signal about the administration’s plans for school choice in Vermont.

The perpetually difficult relationship between public and private schools in Vermont is more fractious than ever. Public education officials have long pushed the state to enact stricter requirements of the private schools who receive taxpayer funds through the state’s town tuitioning program. But a series of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, including in Carson v. Makin, now requires the state to allow religious schools to participate in its voucher system.

That’s led some to argue that unless the state can enact stronger guardrails, it should abolish its private school choice altogether, although lawmakers — particularly in the Senate — have shown no appetite for such a move.

Asked by Democratic Sen. Martine Gulick whether private schools that receive public dollars should be subject to the same rules as public schools, Saunders answered that they should take the same standardized tests.

Gulick, who serves as a school board member in Burlington, returned to the question several minutes later, asking whether private schools should follow any other regulations that are imposed on public schools. To this, Saunders replied that she would have to do more research.

“That probably is a more nuanced question than I'm able to answer at this moment, because I have not yet had an opportunity to do that side-by-side comparison,” Saunders said.

But while Saunders sometimes answered questions obliquely, on queries about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ attempts to bring culture wars into the classroom, she was unequivocal.

“I bring none of that,” she told senators.

The Senate Education Committee is expected to make its recommendation Wednesday. A floor vote by the full Senate is currently scheduled for next week.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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