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Vermont education secretary appointee discusses charter schools, consolidation and DEI

A woman with blonde hair and a light blue suit is seen through other people in a crowd. She stands near a flag and large painting and looks off to the left.
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Zoie Saunders was announced as Vermont's new education secretary by Gov. Phil Scott on March 22, 2024.

Vermont's newly appointed education secretary Zoie Saunders is less than a week out from her confirmation hearing.

Saunders comes to Vermont from Florida, where she worked as a charter school strategist and school administrator. She joined Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak for a conversation on her prior experience and her hopes for Vermont's education system.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Welcome to Vermont! How's the change in weather been?

It's been good, thank you. I'm officially a resident, so I am a Vermonter, and I'm thrilled to be here.

You have years of experience working as a school administrator and a strategist for a charter school company in Florida, but you haven't worked as a teacher, principal or superintendent. A listener named Frank asks, "How have you helped students and educators do a great job?"

Thank you for that question. I've devoted my entire career to promoting student outcomes and creating pathways to college and career, and in supporting superintendents, principals and teachers to ensure great public schools. Specifically, I've worked with classroom teachers and principals in really promoting and facilitating school improvement planning to ensure that every child has the instructional resources and support that that child needs to be successful academically, and also have helped in developing a number of tools to equip the teachers and help them to really amplify and elevate their work in the classroom.

You worked for seven years as a strategist with the company Charter Schools USA. Vermont, of course, does not have charter schools, but we do have school choice — students in areas without a public school essentially get a voucher to attend a public or private school of their choice.

In the last two years, since a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the amount of public dollars going to religious schools has gone up rather substantially. Do you think there should be any limits on the amount of public funding that goes to private schools in Vermont?

Yes, I do have experience in charter schools, and want to clarify too, that in every state that I've worked in, those are public schools. My role in supporting public schools across multiple states was ensuring that they were a great educational option for students in supporting them with high levels of academic achievement.

Public schools, but they're privately run.

So there's— yes, the governance structure is different, so the public schools are still required, the students that attend public charter school are required to take the same state assessment. The teachers requirements are also the same and in some states are actually their own local education agency, in which case, they would provide more even extensive support and not contract with the LEA [local education agency] for that. They are the governance model is very different. They are approved and authorized by either a district or a state. And then there is another local board that oversees the public charter school. Those boards can opt to contract with an education management company to oversee the day to day operations, so that's that's how they're different.

Well, let's return to the question here about public dollars in Vermont flowing in to some private schools through the school choice program and religious schools as well. Do you think that there should be any limits on the amount of public funding that goes to private schools in Vermont?

So, Vermont's very unique in being a tuitioning state. I know that there have been a lot of questions recently after the Supreme Court decision and my understanding is that we have to comply with the federal law, which indicates that we would need to be able to share those dollars if we do with a non-religious public school with a religious public school. I think the work that the state of Vermont has been doing is ensuring that there there's no discriminatory practices. I know that's a lot of work, that also the State Board of Education has been reviewing and modifying some of the rule series around independent schools to build in those assurances, in terms of the student enrollment policies. I think that the state of Vermont has been proactive and really looking at that from an equity lens and trying to promote inclusion inclusionary practices and all of our school enrollment options.

To return to your experience with Charter Schools USA, is there something that you learned about charter schools in your time there that you would like to see replicated in Vermont? Or as you said, you know, they're very different systems, Vermont does not have charter schools, is that part of your experience rather separate from what you're going to be doing as the head of the agency of education here?

To clarify, I'm not interested in bringing charter schools to the state of Vermont. I know the governor has also indicated that on the record. That is not something we are exploring. However, my experience of supporting public schools in multiple states is very, you know, there's a lot of things I've learned in that experience that can be applied here in the state of Vermont. Particularly when you think about local control being very important here in the state of Vermont, I have experience in establishing high quality and consistent learning outcomes across multiple states, across multiple schools and multiple states that have different state policy and different state requirements. In that work, I was able to establish those consistent quality indicators while allowing for that localized flexibility in each state. I think a lot of that is going to be relevant as we look at the state of Vermont and identifying high quality, consistent educational outcomes across every supervisory union while allowing for that flexibility on the ground with our local school boards. I think those experiences are very relevant. I also have done a lot of work around ensuring that the academic needs of schools are driving the budget prioritization process. I think that's very relevant, as we're having conversations now around the educational formula and ensuring that the financial system is really in a place where it's supporting those quality outcomes in every school.

We got a question about local control from Norma in Wheelock in Caledonia County. Norma is concerned about a loss of say over her local schools. She writes that she has 40 years of teaching experience in Vermont, and I'm quoting from her email here, "Local control for many communities was lost when school districts were reorganized. Bigger isn't better, I can no longer vote on just my local school budget, I have to vote on the entire budget at the Kingdom East School District." Norma brings up a concern here that I've heard numerous times in Vermont about school consolidation. Gov. Phil Scott has said he's open to the idea of closing more small schools. Are you?

Going to the first point around local control, I think it's really important to have that level of engagement. I'm a big believer in the importance of local communities being involved in helping to identify and articulate what those priorities are for their school. As we think about the other question around consolidation, I think you'll see a consistent pattern in all of my responses. Everything that we explore needs to be really organized around the goal of improving student outcomes and student opportunities. I think the conversation there is around really, as a state, identifying what are the educational opportunities that we want all of our students to have access to, and then think about how we need to structure ourselves in order to to deliver on that. I think we need to be very mindful around this not being a one size fits all approach, and engaging the community and defining the approach that is going to be, again, in the best interest of students, and help us to ensure that there's equitable opportunities for students across the state.

I want to make sure to get to a topic that a lot of folks wrote in to us about, which is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' curriculum policies. He banned diversity and inclusion programs in public schools in Florida, and the State Board of Education approved a controversial social studies curriculum. You did not work for this DeSantis administration or the State Board of Education, but having come from Florida, worked for many years in their schools, what is your view on Gov. DeSantis and his curriculum policies?

I think it's very important as we look at Vermont to make sure that we are developing policies that are inclusive and supportive of all students, and also really making sure that we are studying our full history. In terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I have brought in those principles into my work. It's really not been theoretical, it's really been applying those to every aspect of what I've done both in Florida and other states, of being intentional around ensuring that we are distributing resources equitably, that we are lifting the voices of communities that have historically been underrepresented or marginalized, to ensure that we are really doing right by our community at large. And so those are things that are really part of my value system, and I will bring here to the state of Vermont.

Broadcast live on Thursday, April 18, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.