Like Will Rogers, most of what I know is what I've read in the newspapers. Thus, I know that Vermont's education commissioner wants to cut public education spending by -gasp!-2 percent or $23 million.
The commissioner has ever so cautiously suggested that Vermont's schools, with lowest-in-the-nation pupil/teacher ratios (and the smallest class sizes as well as lowest-in-the-nation pupil-staff ratios that approach cruiseship passenger-crew proportions) be modestly adjusted upwards.
With a little math previously recited here, it works out to a seat or two in a class of 11. The usual suspects have responded in the usual ways with Rutland Superintendent Mary Moran claiming her schools are "excellent" and a former Rutland Northeast superintendent lauding the "very high achievement" of the state's schools and students-both in blithe dismissal of grim reality-the NAEP test score results for Vermont.
About two-thirds of Vermont's young charges can't function at grade level in math and reading and therefore can't be labeled "proficient". The howls of denial and protest have reverberated under Vermont's Golden Dome and I'd wager that staffing reductions to capture the budgetary $23 million cost-savings-in one of fastest-in-the-nation enrollment decline environment-just ain't gonna happen.
Quite the opposite: the latest argument for pre-K is that the new staffers' paychecks serve as an economic stimulus to the larger economy-at a ratio of $1 invested for $7 in multiplier-effect. Progressive economist Lord Maynard Keynes would have been proud of this innovative math.
Here's an alternative to consider:
Student transportation expenses vary substantially from one Vermont district to another; the state education department chooses not to publish statewide data, lest the data be subject to undesired outside analysis; however, we have some not-too-stale data from the 2008 National Digest of Educational Statistics, Table 177, for the 2005-6 school year, when Vermont-the second smallest state population-wise-spent $40.5 million on school bussing.
For the previous year, it worked out to $393 per pupil, enrollment 98.4K. Wyoming, the smallest state, spent $42.1 million, $450 per pupil, enrollment 84.7K.
Apologists for Vermont's bussing costs typically argue rural dispersion, even though they well know that its mere 9,614 square miles are approximately 10 percent of vast Wyoming's 97,814 square miles, across which it transports about 10 percent fewer young riders and covers ten times as much area at a per-capita cost only about 15 percent higher.
In my own pre-K experience, which started just about when the Thomas Company began building the school buses I never rode, no school district ever spent a nickel to get me there or back.
Before this newspaper is drowned in reader protest, let me explain that I don't propose here that all 21st-century Vermont school kids be "abused" as we 20th-century kids were-that is, forced to traipse through miles of knee-deep snow to and from school-but I propose only that the missing $23 million be taken from the $40.5 bussing budget; it's probably near $46million by now, so my cut would be into halves) by requiring the nearest-to-school 50 percent of enrollment to get there and back as we did: private enterprise. I didn't even always have a Schwinn bicycle.
My earliest recollection of the primary grades was riding to school in a Ford two-seater automobile with a rumble seat (forbidden to us kids) who both occupied the passenger seat while the designated mother drove.
By fifth grade, I had my first Schwinn. It was an unearned gift. My fellow passengers were similarly gifted, as were the several moms who thereby escaped the chauffeur roster. By ninth grade I had my second and larger one. It was earned with profit from preschool newspaper delivery. By our high school years, a few upperclassmen, 'way above us in socio-economic status, drove-wow!-their own cars.
The same public education spending defenders who can't (won't?) grasp that Wyoming is 10 times larger geographically than Vermont similarly can't (won't?) grasp that, contrary to their pious child-safety protestations, American roads are almost four times safer now than they were for vehicles, and presumably, bikes.
Available data from the feds show 1957 highway deaths at 5.98 per 100,000 miles; 1997 deaths were down to 1.64. A non-measurable variable, comparing then to now: what about all these costly bike paths and bike bridges Vermont taxpayers have been pouring money into? Are they purely for the imported water bottle-on-hip recreational class, and off-limits to the coaster-brake lower-SES level of cyclists with books in the basket and an actual useful destination in mind?
Like Illinois Rep. (and Sen.) Ev Dirksen, who famously appreciated that money is scaleable ("a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're into real money"), I readily concede that $23 million ain't much out of a $1.2 billion public education budget. (as the mathematically-proficient ed commissioner has proven, it's 2 percent (don't test 59 percent of your eighth graders on this long division/percentage exercise; they'll score as non-proficient, per 2008 NDES, Table 131) but even at a mere 2 percent it's a marker of sorts, a line in the sand to be crossed (frugal Vermonters, both remaining examples) or defended (educational paycheck receivers, multitudes).
Is it a violation of the Eighth Amendment for school kids to bicycle to school? Or would it be verboten to cut a few bus drivers for the same pro-budget vote calculus that forbids cutting a few teachers by raising class sizes modestly?
Parenthetically, I'd ask, is it the same calculus as lies concealed behind the push for universal pre-K, which would add both staffing costs and the votes to help push the staff expansion through? I'm 'jes askin'; if it discomfits (a little archaic Middle English lingo, there) you, consider it a rhetorical inquiry only.
Retired Vermont architect Martin Harris observes Green Mountain State politics from a safe distance-Tennessee.