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Clark: Unintended Consequences

Act 46 asks questions about education quality, equity and cost. But unless the legislature repairs its flaws, its biggest impact may be on democracy.

Schools are where we spend the majority of locally collected tax dollars. And here, we entrust what’s most precious to us - our children - to a public system. So it’s no wonder that participating in decisions around schools is the most organic and powerful way for adults to discover their role in public life.

And schools function best when the community is involved. The future of public education depends on citizens who are willing to pay for education - with their time, wisdom and dollars. For this, we need their democratic engagement.

But one of the unintended consequences of Act 46 is to move engagement out of reach of the average Vermonter.

Here’s one example. Although Vermont women hold only 1 in 5 select board or city council positions, women hold over half the seats on Vermont’s school boards. It’s extraordinary civic and leadership training for women.

But Act 46 calls for local school boards to be replaced by fewer, regional boards. In fact, it could result in the elimination of some 2/3 of Vermont’s school board positions. Goodbye to Vermont women’s most important entryway into public life.

With fewer school boards, both male and female voters’ representation is diminished. Geographically and logistically, our access to elected representatives – and theirs to us - is reduced. Town meeting day discussions are eliminated, and small schools will be outnumbered on regional boards. Everywhere, but especially in rural areas, Act 46 creates less democracy.

Vermonters are accustomed to knowing where they fit in to decision making. And this sense that government is a “we,” not a “they,” is largely why Vermont ranks top in the nation in social capital. We need to retain inviting places in education for ordinary citizens - especially women - to frame policy, deliberate, make meaningful decisions, and lead.

Rigid, formalized methods like public hearings are no replacement for thousands of volunteer hours and thick, grassroots democracy. Legislators should look again at Act 46 and incorporate the best, 21st Century techniques for authentic, empowered citizen participation.

And in towns where there’s an Act 46 study committee, it’s imperative for everyone to pay attention to the proposals it puts forward. We’ll need to support our democratic values actively - or live with the law of unintended consequences.

Susan Clark is a facilitator, educator, and the co-author of "Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home." She is also Town Moderator of Middlesex, Vermont.
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