issues

Jeremy’s Vermont-NEA 2014 Candidate Questionnaire Responses

Here are the questions from and my responses to the Vermont NEA’s Candidate Questionnaire. All of these questions allowed me to select “Agree”, “Disagree”, or “Don’t Know”. I selected “Agree” for all of them, and included the long-form answers you see below in the provided “Comments” sections.

Too many working Vermonters – especially women and workers in low wage jobs – have to go to work sick or lose a paycheck. Too many Vermonters must choose between caring for an ill child or parent and foregoing pay. Too many working Vermonters must choose between staying home to care for a sick child and sending that sick child to school. And, too many Vermonters must choose between taking time off to seek help against domestic or sexual violence and losing income and hope for economic independence. It is time for Vermont to affirm the primacy of worker and family health and safety needs. The cost of providing a modicum of paid time to employees to enable them to care for themselves and family is insignificant compared with the social, health, and productivity costs of leaving its provision discretionary with employers. Some 60,000 Vermont workers are caught between the inevitability of illness and the necessity for pay. Vermont-NEA believes that all employees should be entitled – in law – to earn a reasonable amount of paid time off to take care of themselves and their families when illness strikes or safety requires.

I agree that all Vermont workers should have access to paid leave — women and the lowest-paid workers are particularly hard-hit by their inability to take time off. My family’s fortunate in that both my wife and I have flexible schedules and paid sick leave so that we can take care of ourselves and our kids, but not everyone is so fortunate.

I believe that it’s in everyone’s best interests if Vermonters have the ability to stay home when they’re sick, taking care of sick kids, or dealing with major personal issues.

Vermont-NEA has been and remains a leading and effective advocate of health care reform, and it supports the vision and goals of Green Mountain Care. Over decades, school employees – and other workers – negotiated for good health care and openly sacrificed wage and benefit gains in order to obtain and retain it. For 20 years, Vermont-NEA and school boards have saved taxpayers many tens of millions of dollars through reduced insurance premiums in a single statewide insurance group (VEHI) for all active and retired school employees and their families. As the State now moves to consider funding and other components of Green Mountain Care, it must protect all Vermont employees from substantial compensation losses in the transition. Absent helpful legislative attention, the combined impact of separating access to health care from employment and a new broad-based public payment system – which we support – could lead improperly to substantial losses in compensation for active and retired employees generally, whether in unions or not. Vermont-NEA believes the State must acknowledge the sacrifices employees have made in compensation over past decades and, in the transition to Green Mountain Care, enact provisions to offset possible loss in coverage or increased costs.

While the final package of benefits and their costs are still unknown, if coverage is reduced or cost increases become reality, I would support maintaining current benefit levels and costs.

Together with our communities, Vermont-NEA members are leading the charge in making our already great public schools even better, equipping our students with the tools they need to live happy, productive and fulfilling lives, no matter what path they choose to pursue. The State’s constitutional obligation is to ensure access to a substantially equal amount of funding for each student, regardless of community. A related purpose of the original Act 60 was to enable low wealth communities to level up. It was a striking success, but that leveling up fed a public perception that, coupled with our state’s decline in school-aged children, we are spending “too much” on their education. The state is paying no more on schoolchildren now, as a percentage of total income, than it has, dating back to years prior to the enactment of Act 60. In recent years, the total number of school employees in Vermont has declined by nearly 1000, as school districts continue to acknowledge enrollment declines. It is not possible to cut costs in lockstep with enrollment declines. Increased costs stem largely from matters outside the control of schools themselves, such as necessary technology changes, health care, and State and federal initiatives. Vermont-NEA believes the current school funding system is fundamentally and constitutionally sound, but that it can and should be made more overtly related to taxpayer ability to pay.

I strongly agree that tying school funding sources to residents and property owners’ abilities to pay is crucial. I do not believe the claim of some that less-well-off folks need to have more “skin in the game”.

Just about every five years over many decades, state-level policymakers have tried to cajole or require the elimination of town-based school districts in favor of about 50-60 consolidated school districts. Every five years, the twin promises of consolidation are reduced costs and increased learning opportunities, but the evidence from states that have “consolidated” or “centralized” shows neither promise fulfilled. And every five years, forced consolidation is rebuffed by Vermont’s local communities. Besides missing the mark about efficiency and opportunity, Montpelier overlooks something fundamental about Vermont: Vermonters cherish community, the capacity to elect and hold accountable locally elected school officials, and the accompanying opportunities for civic engagement. Every five years, because the State focuses on “governance” consolidation, we miss the opportunity to address less global, more discrete matters that would improve the quality of our school systems. A few basic examples: making the job of superintendent doable, making the position of principal attractive, making the professional needs of educators paramount, helping communities with increasingly small schools plan their future, using the regulatory process and technology to ensure breadth of learning opportunities, all so that the adults can really focus their complete attention on the needs of all our children. Vermont-NEA believes the current school governance system, despite certain flaws, serves an overriding Vermont value and that the State should focus instead on discrete matters that would improve the quality of our school systems and our communities.

I do not support district consolidation, and the loss of local control that would entail. The feedback allowed by local school boards is critical to allow our schools to serve our communities’ needs and to ensure that we don’t get stuck with a “one size fits all” model that doesn’t really fit anyone.

Providing actual equal opportunities for all schoolchildren is important. It just is not something that simply happens by consolidating the structure of school systems. Generally, schoolchildren in Vermont perform better than just about anywhere else. Report after report confirms we are doing well by them: Vermont’s schoolchildren are among the smartest, happiest, healthiest, and safest in the United States. The general, however, masks the specific, here and across the nation: students from lower income households, for all our efforts to spread education resources equitably, typically do not keep up with their better off peers. While the achievement gap in Vermont is less pronounced than elsewhere, it is and remains the most difficult and intractable problem for us to address as an education community. While it is a primary focus in our schools, and while a good education remains an essential way out of poverty, we cannot legitimately pretend children are somehow magically capable of shedding their socioeconomic conditions at the schoolhouse door. To be “ready to learn” once through that door, all schoolchildren must have a roof over their heads, food in their bellies, and security in their daily lives. Vermont-NEA believes the state should engage in constant effort to address the effects poverty has in our schools by constant attention to social programs and fiscal policies that diminish poverty in our communities.

My field, computer science, defines (at a high level) an intractable problem as one that can be solved, but not in an amount of time such that the solution is useful. Often, these problems are provably intractable when scientists are seeking a “perfect” solution, but substantially easier when getting close to perfect is sufficient.

I believe that this is one of those problems. Recognizing that the problem might never be 100% “solved”, I believe that addressing hunger and homelessness can help get us close. I wholeheartedly agree that targeted social programs to help Vermonters in poverty will have a positive effect on kids’ education and their future prospects.

Too many teachers new to the profession leave it within a short period. That speaks volumes about the difficulties new teachers face, and it masks untold millions of dollars wasted in preparing young professionals for a career almost half of them abandon in short order. There are proven ways usefully to address this public issue. They include providing each new teacher respectful compensation, ensuring professional mentoring for two years at the start of her career, helping with teachers’ own student debt, extending the period of required student teaching, limiting the range of non-teaching duties for new teachers, ensuring manageable class sizes for new teachers, and providing useful training for all teachers regarding special needs students. Vermont-NEA believes the most important education policy matter our State faces is to make teaching sufficiently attractive to high caliber young professionals both before entering and during their initial years in their own classrooms, and the State should address this issue by investing in proven ways of helping young professionals.

I support improving mentoring programs, extending student teaching, providing for a reduced workload for new teachers, and improving special needs training programs. I also support training programs for and research into alternative pedagogical techniques.

I am lukewarm on providing funds for new teachers’ student loans. I think there are better ways to approach the problem of college affordability, such as changes at the university level, “scholarship for service”, and “pay it forward” programs.

Vermont is among the many states that have adopted the “Common Core,” national standards that purport to ready students for college and career. Like so many “new” approaches to education over the decades, the potential for success of the Common Core will be determined by how well the state chooses to implement it. If teachers are provided adequate training, materials, and the time they need in which to develop new curricula and try them out, our students will succeed under it. Accompanying the shift to Common Core is a new system of standardized testing requiring up to date technology in every school. If the state merely directs school districts to implement the Common Core without providing adequate training, materials, and time, nothing much will change, except that student scores on the new tests will drop. Some states taking Common Core seriously are devoting significant new dollars to schools, to provide the technology needed, the training needed, and the time needed. Vermont-NEA believes the state of Vermont should invest sufficiently in the Common Core to ensure that its implementation is smooth, of high quality, and, most importantly, helpful to our children.

I have to admit that I am not fully educated on what the Common Core does and doesn’t do, but as an admirer of the Montessori Method and its lack of a formal grading system, I am concerned about the amount of standardized testing and our education system’s focus on grades. I would rather see a descriptive explanation of my child’s strengths and weaknesses than a simple letter grade. As a postsecondary educator, I really try to provide detailed feedback to my students as they work through the course materials. I would really like to see more of a less-standardized model in Vermont, though I don’t know what that would require.

More than one-third of American retirees lived in poverty as recently as a half-century ago. Social Security and Medicare, along with pensions, dramatically reduced that horrifying statistic. State policy has become an increasingly important tool to address the retirement security of its citizens.
a. Policy Commitment to Teachers. In 2010 and 2014, Vermont-NEA reached historic agreements with the State protecting the fiscal security of the State Teachers’ Retirement System, saving taxpayers more than $1 billion over the course of the next couple of decades or so (Vermont-NEA and the State reached quieter agreements protecting the Municipal Employees’ Retirement System.) Vermont’s teachers are paying more and working more for their retirement. During the prior two decades, the State annually and routinely underfunded the Teachers’ Retirement System by millions, sometimes tens of millions, of dollars. The State has met its full funding commitment to this system for each of the past 7 years. Vermont-NEA believes the State must continue to meet its annual funding commitment to the State Teachers’ Retirement System.

I admit that I am not an expert on this particular issue, but on a superficial level, I support funding the pension plans. If the current system of funding seems to be working, I am not inclined to change it without cause.

b. Policy Commitment to All Vermonters. The retirement security of all workers is a major public policy imperative. 401(k) and similar financial devices were originally designed to supplement both Social Security and pensions. In recent years, many employers have merely abandoned offering pensions as part of employees’ compensation, leaving employees to their own devices, thereby increasing rather than addressing the insecurity so many feel as they approach retirement. Vermont-NEA believes the State should develop ways to improve retirement security for all Vermonters.

I agree, though I don’t know how that should happen.

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