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Former Education Secretary Seeks Democratic Nomination For Governor

Former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, seen here outside her home in Norwich, is hoping to unseat the Republican governor she once served under.
Peter Hirschfeld
Former Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, seen here outside her home in Norwich, is hoping to unseat the Republican governor she once served under.

On a sunny day in April in 1978, 11-year-old Rebecca Holcombe was playing baseball in a field in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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Holcombe’s parents were humanitarian workers for the United Nations and UNICEF, and the family had been living in Kabul since they accepted a post there in 1976.

“They oversaw a variety of rural economic development projects, including electrification of rural areas,” Holcombe said. “My mother worked in primary health, particularly child maternal health was her strong focus.”

More from The Frequency: Rebecca Holcombe Hopes To Make The Grade

Displays of military might weren’t exactly rare in Afghanistan. On this day in April, however, Holcombe said there was something different about the tanks suddenly rolling down the streets of Kabul.

“My mother notic[ed] that they were wearing treads, so they were actually chewing up the pavement, and realiz[ed] that this wasn’t just another parade, like the many parades we’d seen. This was the real thing,” Holcombe said.

"In my view, Rebecca was effective in leading the education community in a recognition of necessary initiative and change, and she was good at that." - Jeff Francis, Vermont Superintendents Association

That “real thing” was the beginning of the Saur Revolution. Over the next 48 hours, Soviet-backed opposition leaders would kill the Afghan president in a bloody coup that plunged the country into civil unrest.

Life was suddenly even less safe for U.S. foreign service workers.

“My dad had been named as a potential target because he was a senior American in town,” Holcombe said. “And we had … security contact with the U.S. Embassy all the time and were getting briefs.”

Holcombe said her time in Afghanistan as a child - and in Pakistan and Sudan after that - gave her an enduring appreciation for the civic institutions that many Americans take for granted.

She said it’s why she pursued a career in public education in Vermont. She said it’s also part of the reason she wants to be the state’s next governor.

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“It was just consciousness of both how privileged I was, and how important making sure other people have access to opportunity is, because that’s what they deserve,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe served as secretary of education under both Democratic and Republican administrations, and during that time, she oversaw some landmark changes to Vermont’s public school system.

But she left the post unexpectedly in 2018, over policy disagreements with Gov. Phil Scott. And now Holcombe, one of four candidates seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in next week's primary election, is hoping to unseat the Republican incumbent she once served under.

Rebecca Holcombe, left, at a press conference with then-Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Rebecca Holcombe, left, at a press conference with then-Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2014.

During her 30-year career in public education, Holcombe has been a teacher, a principal and a district administrator. In 2014, then-Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed her secretary of the Agency of Education.

Her tenure coincided with landmark shifts in the way Vermont schools are assessed and governed. And Holcombe says those reforms fell against a backdrop of intensifying financial challenges.

“And there was a common thread, in that many people were saying, ‘Look, we have the exact same program we’ve always had, but our tax rates keep going up. How can our tax rates keep going up when we’ve got the exact same teachers, same building, same everything else?’” Holcombe said.

Holcombe says the Agency of Education developed new data tools for districts and school board members, and that she toured the state to help educational leaders understand the interplay between their pupil counts, budgets and tax rates.

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Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, says Holcombe’s presentations resonated with members of his organization.

“In my view, Rebecca was effective in leading the education community in a recognition of necessary initiative and change, and she was good at that,” Francis said. “Public education and the state grew a lot under her leadership, in terms of their understanding of what it was we were trying to accomplish as a public education system and why.”

Nicole Mace, speaking in her capacity as former head of the Vermont School Boards Association, recalls Holcombe delivering Power Point presentations to board members across the state.

“She was able to sort of, I thought pretty masterfully, blend both the values and the objective data in a way that I think compelled a lot of school boards members to become more open to the need to make some changes in their systems,” Mace said.

Behind the scenes, however, Holcombe and the governor who appointed her after Shumlin - Phil Scott - were increasingly at odds over the issue of education spending.

In January of 2017 - his first month in office - Scott shocked the education community with a proposal to freeze school budgets for the year.

Holcombe says she opposed the plan, and that she had no involvement in its development.

But she says she still saw a place for herself in the Scott administration.

Watch or listen to the VPR/Vermont PBS 2020 Primary Debates: Democratic Candidates For Governor

“I think every governor gets sort of a free pass the first year, because you’re learning the ropes,” Holcombe said. “It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle the first time. You know, I just assumed that we were learning how to ride the bicycle together - we’re going to figure it out.”

The breaking point came the next year, Holcombe says, when Scott again sought cuts to school budgets that had local voters had already approved.

“And it really corroded the relationship that we’d worked so hard to build and the trust we’d worked so hard to build with school districts,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe resigned the secretary’s post in March of 2018. She said she decided to run for governor about a year and a half later. And she says the data-driven approach she brought to public education can be used to improve the health care system, rural economic development, climate change and housing.

She says her foray into statewide politics hasn’t been easy.

“I’m not a politician,” she said. “It’s hard. I think politics are pretty toxic to good solutions right now.”

But Holcombe says she’s ready to campaign hard against the Republican incumbent she once served under if Democratic voters hand her the nomination in next week’s primary.

More from VPR: Democratic Gubernatorial Primary Race 2020: Rebecca Holcombe

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld

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