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Outgoing Vermont Superintendents Association director reflects on decades of education reform

An older man wearing black glasses and a light blue shirt with buttons sits with arms crossed on a dark desk, with stacks of papers to the left and another desk with a computer turned on behind him.
Lola Duffort
Vermont Public
Jeff Francis in his Montpelier office on June 4, 2024. Francis will be leaving the Vermont Superintendents Association after almost three decades.

After nearly 30 years at the Vermont Superintendents Association, Jeff Francis is retiring this summer.

Francis has spent much of his working life as a liaison of sorts between Montpelier and the rest of state, helping lawmakers craft education policy and communities navigate what came of their deliberations.

His career has spanned some of the consequential educational reforms in state history.

He talked with Vermont Public's Lola Duffort about the overhauls he's seen over the years, the expanding role of public schools and how we talk about the cost of public education.

They began their conversation with Act 60, the law that changed nearly everything about how Vermont funds its schools.

This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Lola Duffort: You started at the Superintendents Association immediately before lawmakers passed Act 60, which was arguably one of the most important redistributions of wealth in Vermont history. What was the mood in public education then?

Jeff Francis: In my simplistic explanation, it revealed that folks cared deeply about their children and their education. But they also cared about their money. Depending on the town that we went to, folks either greeted Act 60, with a tremendous sense of relief, because now they could invest in their schools and not have exorbitant tax rates in which to do it. And in other places, it was considered to be a taking because what was formerly referred to as the gold towns, they now saw the need to spend more on taxation for equivalent amounts of investment.

So the mood, I think, was one of — it was a mixed mood. But I think that there was a lot of hope and optimism, not only with respect to the funding system, but what it would yield for educational opportunity for children in Vermont.

Lola Duffort: You said this interesting thing, which is that communities really care about their kids — they also care about their pocketbooks. Do you get a sense that people still have a harder time spending on schools when the money's not kept locally — when they're spending on other people's kids?

Jeff Francis: Yeah, I actually think that that phenomenon has faded over time. What I think is coming to light in more recent years, is just the whole question of affordability to begin with. So I don't think that it's necessarily one town versus the other. I think we've reached a point in history where folks are justifiably concerned about the cost. And they lament the fact that providing something as important as public education has reached the cost pressures that it has.

Lola Duffort: I get the sense that you're sympathetic, at least on some level, to complaints about the high cost of property taxes. But you're also clearly uncomfortable with a lot of the rhetoric around school budgets, particularly this year. How do you wish we would reframe how we talk about school funding?

Jeff Francis: What I lament is an apparent miscommunication or lack of understanding around why schools cost what they do. We have a public education system in Vermont, that's not really a system at all. We have tremendous aspirations for what it is we want to provide for students, both collectively and individually. We seem to have no shortage of appetite for what we want to add to the programs, add to the cost of education. And then when it comes time to either pay the bill or talk about the bill, we have a tendency not to look at everything that's involved with what's driving costs, and say that we're spending too much money.

An older man smiles at the camera against a blurred background.
Jeff Francis
The outgoing head of the Vermont Superintendents Association, Jeff Francis, spoke with Vermont Public about his nearly 30 years acting as a liaison for education between Montpelier and the state.

Lola Duffort: Schools are increasingly turning into all-encompassing social safety nets — delivering mental health care, food and social work support for families. Do you think that's unambiguously good? Or do you also worry about schools being given too heavy a load to bear?

Jeff Francis: I've never heard an educator lament the fact that they have that responsibility. What they do do is talk about the costs and operational consequences of fulfilling that responsibility. And they wonder why there's not an understanding of that phenomenon as well. So I wouldn't want to overstate that, but it really is a factor. And when we find ourselves doing things like analyzing local school district budgets or allocations of state monies for schools, we think that the expanding mission of public education is sometimes left out of the conversation.

Lola Duffort: You've seen so many education overhauls come and go. What's your advice for doing reform right?

Jeff Francis: I think the first thing is the work should be collaborative. It should be thorough in the examination of what the challenges are that you're confronting. I think that it should be policy-centric, rather than driven by political forces whenever possible. I think that there needs to be measurement, not only as the reform is being contemplated and ultimately enacted, but also after the fact as well. I think that the reforms should be based on the most altruistic purpose possible with an emphasis on benefiting the common good. And I think that it shouldn't be rushed.

It's complicated work. It's hard work. And if we don't consider it complicated and hard and turn into it with all the collaborative thought process and goodwill, then I think we're going to have significantly more problems than if we don't approach it collaboratively and with a spirit of goodwill.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

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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