In the inaugural address of his second term Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin shifted the focus of his administration from the ambitious agenda launched two years ago to a new goal: education.
Shumlin’s first two years in office were eventful ones. He launched a major overhaul of the state’s health care system, and he undertook to make high-speed Internet available everywhere in the state by the end of this year. At the same time, he has had to contend with the historic devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene, including the reconstruction of the state’s transportation system and mental health programs.
Now that these initiatives have been set in motion, Shumlin is moving on, using his inaugural address to stake out new territory. Education, he said, is the state’s “greatest economic development tool.” More than that, it opens the doors of opportunity for Vermonters of all ages.
At the heart of Shumlin’s argument were two telling numbers. He said 62 percent of job openings in the next five years would require post-secondary education. At the same time only 45 percent of Vermonters entering ninth grade continue their education beyond high school. That gap represents lost opportunity for Vermonters and for the state’s employers.
Shumlin acknowledged that Vermont spends 50 percent above the national average for education, and over the past decade education spending in Vermont has grown faster than in any other state. The result is one of the best systems in the nation, but with a major failure: “With the vast amount of money that we spend per pupil in Vermont, we have failed to move more low-income Vermont kids beyond high school,” he said.
It is refreshing that Shumlin has left behind the fruitless arguments and tiresome critiques that have dominated education politics in recent years. He did not mention the need to consolidate school districts. He spoke only glancingly about education finance. He did not mention increased accountability through standardized tests. Instead, he focused on ways to expand educational opportunity from pre-K through higher education with several new programs that could make a big difference.
He said it was time for the state to take action to make pre-kindergarten educational programs universally available and affordable throughout the state. Lack of affordable day care is one of the most significant obstacles to low-income Vermonters seeking work to lift themselves out of poverty.
Shumlin’s proposal would shift $17 million away from Vermont’s contribution to the earned income tax credit toward a program to make day care and pre-K programs available to low-income residents. The earned income tax credit is a benefit that goes to low-income workers. It is a federal program to which Vermont adds its own funds as a form of income support. By shifting roughly half of the amount going to the earned income tax credit, the state would be targeting the money. Low-income beneficiaries of the credit would lose some money, but parents seeking support for a pre-K program would gain.
Shumlin would also use state funds to bolster spending on school lunches for students who can afford only reduced-price lunches, rather than free lunches.
Shumlin announced a new scholarship program for Vermonters studying science, technology, engineering or math. It is called the Vermont Strong Scholarship, and for college graduates, with either an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree, part of their tuition would be repaid if they stayed in Vermont to work.
None of these initiatives would represent a major budget outlay. Legislators, however, may want to consider whether they can find a better source for the $17 million than the pockets of low-income Vermonters.
Taken together, all of Shumlin’s proposals are the work of a governor who is not content to coast, but who continues to look for ways to lead in areas of need. He is in the process of becoming Vermont’s health care governor. Now he is putting in a bid to become the education governor. It is an ambitious and worthy goal.
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