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Schubart: Diet

Vermont needs to lose weight. Although our population is stable, our demography is changing. We’re older and becoming more urban. The local institutions that nurtured us when our dispersed villages were economically robust and filled with children and working people have grown too expensive.

While income for the wealthy living on dividends and interest has risen along with our cost of living, income from labor has remained fixed for several decades. We now have a state that working Vermonters can’t afford and well-heeled Vermonters don’t want to pay for.  

For example, we have too many competing community hospitals. Non-profit competition raises costs rather than lowering them. We’re redesigning a healthcare delivery network that will rely on fewer hospitals but more agile local clinics and primary care practices to better manage chronic disease and emergencies.

We can’t afford it all. This is not just about cost and taxes, it’s about excess supply degrading quality and creating inequities.
We have six state colleges, four of which are struggling seriously and seeking substantially increased funding from a legislature wrestling with a $100 million-dollar deficit. Reduced market-demand, escalating costs, deferred maintenance, duplicative administration, and underfunded employment and post-employment benefit plans are slowly oxidizing the finances of those colleges. At the same time, our legislators tinker with educational investments at both extremes of the juvenile age spectrum.

We have 100 public school districts with less than 100 students and four high schools that together graduate less than 70 students a year. In the last 17 years, our student population has fallen off by 21- thousand students or 20 percent, while teaching and administrative staff numbers remain the same. Our sentimental attachment to the value of small schools and class-sizes is belied by the facts. Hyper-local schooling makes good sense for early ages but, after that, most students benefit academically in better-resourced regional districts.

With input from communities, legislators must summon the courage to shrink the Byzantine architecture and governance of our public schools. But after everyone is heard, there must be action.

Jeb Spaulding, our incoming Chancellor of State Colleges has the experience and political gravitas to guide the redesign of our post-secondary educational system to better serve the life-long-learning needs of Vermonters and streamline the system’s administrative costs.

Less can be more.  Our allegiance to the past is legendary… and sometimes misplaced. Sometimes it serves us well. There are other places where it will bankrupt us.

Bill Schubart lives and writes in Hinesburg. His latest book is Lila & Theron.
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