Bland, Clymer & Pelletier: New education group promotes transparency, rights

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Richard Bland, former Stowe School Board director; Drew Clymer, former Stowe School Board director; and Leigh Pelletier, former Stowe, Lamoille South Supervisory Union, and Lamoille South Unified Union School Board director.  The comprise the board of directors of the nonprofit Vermont Free and Open Schools Association Inc. 

We are writing to introduce ourselves, the board of directors of the nonprofit Vermont Free and Open Schools Association Inc. (VT FOSA). Between us, we have had children in the Vermont public school system for over 40 years; we served on our local school board for over a decade; we have legal expertise; and we are deeply committed to making sure Vermont continues to offer its students an excellent education. 

The purpose of VT FOSA is to “provide education and support for school teachers, school boards, and school administrators in all respects as to First Amendment rights, Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, Vermont’s Public Records Law (and its federal counterparts), teachers’ and administrators’ rights against discrimination and retaliation, and teachers’ and administrators’ rights to engage in public discourse without fear of retaliation.”

We are looking to promote increased transparency in our schools, with the understanding that the natural offshoot will be better governance. We will educate and advocate, working to ensure that Vermont school systems honor and abide by the legal protections for open decision making, discussion, and access to information.

For our introduction, we want to raise the issue we are particularly concerned about: retaliation against teachers for sharing concerns about what is occurring in their schools. Currently, both state and local school boards, as well as legislative educational committees, are unable to receive unfiltered testimony from educators as they try to determine the effectiveness of programs at both the local and state levels. How can we begin to understand whether our educational programs are working and effective if those with direct experience are basically muzzled? 

Retaliation against those who speak out against a wrong they see in the workplace must always be protected if we are to have honest and open governance. While there is federal case law that provides First Amendment protections to teachers, we need to help our teachers avoid having to go through the long and costly path of litigation in order to protect their rights. In addition, over the past decade, teachers’ First Amendment protections have been whittled away; so we must rely on our state to step in and provide the necessary level of protection. 

In May 2017, Gov. Phil Scott signed Vermont’s New Voices Act, a law protecting student journalists and their teacher advisers from retaliation. At the time, he stated, “Having the press being able to tell stories without being victimized is important in keeping politicians honest.” 

When the legislation was first introduced, both the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont School Board Association opposed the bill. The legislation prevented school administrators from dictating what students could and could not report on so potentially embarrassing information was bound to be unearthed. A clear example of the benefits of this legislation was seen within a year of being passed. In Burlington, four student journalists shed light on what appeared to be the administration protecting a school employee who was facing charges by the Agency of Education for unprofessional conduct. Thanks to the protections afforded these students, the problem was exposed and consequently remedied.

Vermont was at the forefront of the New Voices movement that has been occurring nationally. While the path has been rocky in some states, with the act facing lobbying opposition from other state superintendent and school board associations, the New Voices law is now established in 14 states and there are bills in motion in an additional 11 states. 

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Shouldn’t we provide the same level of protection from retaliation to teachers? Teachers must be able to share their stories without being victimized in order to keep the operations of our schools honest. Whenever education is discussed, there is always a nod to our “valued” teachers. If we truly value our teachers, we must value their opinions and their voices. Let’s find out what is happening in our schools.

This is a critical time for our state’s educational system. We have declining student test performance, the proficiency based learning mandate, forced mergers, distance learning, and anticipated school budget cuts due to Covid-19 all converging at the same time. We need to allow teachers to openly voice their opinions about what policies and programs do and do not support efforts to provide students with the best education possible. 

For our initial year, we will be looking for opportunities to support, educate, and advocate for issues relating to teachers’ First Amendment rights. If you have any thoughts you would like to share with us, please email us at: [email protected].

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Don Hooper, VJT Board Member

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