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Moving Toward the End of the Legislative Session

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S.16, as recommended by the House Education Committee and relating to school exclusionary discipline reform, was favorably voted out of committee on Friday. This bill would create a 16-member Task Force on Equitable and Inclusive School Environments which would include a variety of stakeholders, including students, a teacher, a school counselor, agency staff, and several education leaders. The task force would be charged with making recommendations to end suspensions and expulsions for all but the most serious student behaviors and to compile data regarding school discipline in Vermont public and approved independent schools in order to inform strategic planning, guide statewide and local decision making and resource allocation, and measure the effectiveness of statewide and local policies and practices, taking into account the Vermont Department of Health’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and relevant data reported by the Agency of Education. The task force would have administrative, technical, and legal assistance from the Agency of Education and would meet 6 times between August 1, 2021 and March 15, 2022. The bill also includes several reporting requirements assigned to the AOE. House Education took up S.13, relating to the implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report by creating a 6-member legislative task force that would make recommendations to the General Assembly on an action plan and proposed legislation to ensure that all public students have equitable access to educational opportunities by January 15, 2022. After a presentation of the AOE’s Equalized Pupil Overview of FY22 Weighting presented by Brad James, AOE Secretary French and UVM Professor Kolbe both recommended that the committee narrow the scope of work of the task force to include very specific policy considerations. This bill is expected to be taken up in House Education in the coming week. House Education also reviewed the most recent version of S.115 (draft 5.2), which is the miscellaneous education bill. As reported previously, the miscellaneous education bill currently addresses libraries, cultural liaisons, a school wellness policy and an advisory council on wellness and comprehensive health, the provision of menstrual hygiene products in all school districts and approved independent schools, an expansion of the Vermont Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group, and eFinance. This bill also requires the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education to jointly report to the House and Senate Committees on Education on how the roles and responsibilities of the State Board and the Agency should be restructured. S.115 is expected to be taken up in the coming week. The House Education Committee deliberated over how best to enable supervisory unions/supervisory districts to adopt best practices in teaching literacy instruction to students in prekindergarten-grade 3 and to support the implementation of Act 173. The committee heard testimony from the Agency of Education and worked through several drafts of S.114, the most recent being draft 6.1, which proposes to direct Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding under the American Rescue Plan Act to address literacy and learning loss. This bill creates the Advisory Council on Literacy which would advise on how to improve and sustain literacy outcomes for all students. This bill also creates a position, Statewide Literacy Coordinator, in the Agency of Education. Joint Fiscal Office provided a fiscal note on 4/14/21. S.114 is expected to be taken up in the coming week. The Senate Education Committee heard testimony on H.426, a bill addressing school facilities, during which Secretary French suggested prioritizing immediate Covid-related work in Vermont schools that can be paid for through ESSER funds. Education Committee Chair Senator Brian Campion asked Secretary French to recommend adjustments to the bill. Presumably, the provision to set up an overall condition analysis will be retained in the bill and support for school districts in addressing Covid-related work will be prioritized. The Senate Education Committee will also consider removing provisions of the bill that would update the regulatory framework for school construction aid and requirements that school districts designate a personnel position responsible for facilities and maintain a capital improvements plan. Secretary French suggested that those items could be accomplished through a regulatory process at a later date. The rewrite of the bill could also postpone the study of future sources for funding for sustained school construction aid. This bill appears on the Senate Education agenda next Tuesday. Senate Education and Senate Agriculture discussed S.100 last week, specifically reviewing an amendment from the Senate Appropriations Committee (2.2), which would include renaming the universal meals bill to the “Expansion of School Breakfast and Lunch Programs Act.” As reported previously, JFO provided a Fiscal Note on the proposed amendment, estimating that the cost of universal breakfast to be in the range of $6-10 million, depending on participation. A task force would report findings and recommendations to the House and Senate Committees on Education and on Appropriations, the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, and the Senate Committee on Agriculture addressing how to achieve the goal of providing universal school lunch for all public school students at no cost. The Senate is expected to return to S.100 in the coming week. Senate Education also considered language to address two elements of the State Board of Education:

  1. Diversifying the State Board of Education membership - The Governor would be encouraged to consider not only geography, but also gender, race and ethnicity when appointing new members or filling vacancies, and

  2. Clarifying the role of the State Board of Education - Statutory language would be modified to position the Board in more of a strategic role rather than an administrative role.

The Senate Education Committee discussed addressing these elements in either H.101 (formerly addressing literacy) or H.122 (addressing boards and commissions). House Government Operations and House Appropriations both took up H.449, which makes numerous changes to the membership and duties of the existing Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC), which would become the Vermont Pension Investment Commission, and creates a 10-member task force to review and report on the benefits, design, and funding of Vermont’s state employee and teacher retirement systems. Formerly committee bill 21-0967 (draft 1.3), H.449 includes one member on the task force who would represent a school employer, appointed by the Vermont School Boards Association. Joint Fiscal Office provided a fiscal note on the bill as introduced. In the coming week, the Senate Government Operations Committee will take up pensions in anticipation of receiving H.449.

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