For years afterward it was called the Vicious Act of '92. Act 20 of 1892 decreed the consolidation of the manifold tiny school districts within most towns into a single town district. At one stroke it reduced Vermont's 2,214 school districts by almost 90 percent.
This was, its critics charged, the death of local control of public education-"local" meaning the neighborhood around a school. Eventually the passions of 1892 faded, and citizens came to associate local control with the town school district, where it remained for a century.
The current assault on local control began in 1997, when a liberal legislature enacted Act 60 at the direction of a Supreme Court informed by bogus history and exulting in what even a liberal legal critic described as "a raw exercise of judicial power."
The most revolutionary and controversial of Act 60's provisions was its requirement that all revenues raised locally be shipped to Montpelier, where they would be mixed with state revenues, shifted about, and returned to districts to meet the Court's mandate of "substantially equal access to tax resources."
That broke the historic link between the amount voted by local taxpayers to operate their schools, and the amount of taxes collected for public education. After Act 68 of 2003, school districts where voters chose to spend more than a dollar amount per equalized pupil set by the legislature (currently $8,544) would suffer a corresponding increase in their legislatively-determined residential education property tax rate (currently .86 percent). This was a shrewd attempt to maintain some linkage between spending and taxation, but most voters have long since given up trying to understand how the system works.
The non-financial provisions of Act 60 were every bit as subversive of local control. For years Commissioners of Education had asked for more control over public schools, but the legislature was largely unwilling to grant their pleas. Schools districts were habituated to teacher certification, union bargaining, financial and educational reporting, and civil rights and special education rules. But Act 60 decreed that the Department could enforce "school quality standards", and "standards regulating conditions, practices and resources". It even gained the power - not yet used - to put a school into receivership.
This year saw another wave of attacks on what was left of "local control". The legislature passed a bill to encourage voluntary school district consolidation into "Regional Education Districts". It's perfectly clear to everyone, and especially to the educrats who promoted it, that over time the multitown REDs will be controlled by the department and the teachers' union, not by local voters and taxpayers. The REDs will become the equivalent of multitown waste management districts.
The second step, presaged by Gov. Douglas' 2010 state of the state message, will be departmental control over pupil-teacher ratios. The legislature declined to act on that recommendation, but spending pressure on the Education Fund will likely provide the votes to adopt it within a year or two.
The third step came with Challenge for Change. This much-touted process for achieving spending savings assigned a $23 million cost reduction goal to the Department of Education. But the commissioner does not have the power to force voters of school districts to reduce their budgets to meet that goal. The most he can do is contrive district by district reduction targets, and write urgent letters pleading with the school boards to plead with the voters to meet his target. This he did on August 4.
Many districts may well achieve an average of 2.34 percent in spending reduction this year. Over time, however, the commissioner will acquire the power, either by statute or by force of his office, to tell school districts the most that their schools can spend.
As these steps play out, the Commissioner will issue orders to its Regional Education Districts, capping their pupil-teacher ratios and instructing them on how much they are allowed to spend.
Just as local control of subdistrict schools went out with the Vicious Act of '92, local control as it existed prior to 1997 will soon give way to one of two outcomes: either complete state control, or parental control.
The former is the French model, with its nationwide curriculum and all-powerful Ministry of Education.
The latter would decentralize "local" down to the family level: empowered parents would choose the educational program that they believe is best for their children, and providers would compete to please them as customers, not subjects.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).