Another Opinion, Editorial

Well, At Least it wasn’t the most Violent Thing to ever Happen in a Senate Chamber

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EAST MONTPELIER – Wow. Not only did the state Senate reject Zoie Saunders’ nomination as education secretary, it did so on a lopsided 19-9 vote. That’s a damning indictment of how out of touch Gov. Phil Scott was in choosing her. I mean, it’s still unclear whether a Vermont Senate has ever rejected a cabinet appointee, much less by a better than two-to-one margin.

And of course the governor immediately appointed Saunders as interim secretary, effectively flipping the bird at the Senate. This won’t do anything to improve his turbulent relationship with the Legislature, but I doubt he really cares about that. If anything, this might presage a flurry of vengeful vetoes that would vault Scott’s all-time record into permanently unbreakable Cy Young territory. Hooray for Governor Nice Guy!

And, well, if condolences are ever in order for someone who just “won,” it’s for Zoie Saunders. She takes on a daunting challenge with an understaffed education agency and with the entire educational establishment wishing she would just go away and with two-thirds of the Senate rejecting her. I am convinced she was not the best choice for the job, but man, she’s sitting at the poker table with a deuce-seven off suit. Brutal.

The writing was on the wall from the opening statement in support of Saunders by Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Brian Campion. “I have never witnessed, in my 14 years in this building, such character attacks” as he saw against Saunders, who he characterized as “an exceptional candidate” with “vast experience.” I think he somehow got hold of somebody else’s resumé, because that does  not  describe Zoie Saunders. He’s also blatantly mischaracterizing the opposition, which largely centered on the gaps in Saunders’ resumé, not anything about her person or character. Campion’s performance made me feel prescient for asking how the majority Dem/Prog caucus ended up with him  as chair of the education committee. For a caucus that proffers itself as defenders of public education, they could hardly do worse than Campion.

Who then ended his speech by acknowledging that Saunders was going to lose. “I am also well aware, and have been for a few weeks, of how this vote is going to go,” he said, and he was right on that score if nothing else.

Those voting “Yes” on Saunders included six of seven Senate Republicans (Richard Westman was absent) and three Democrats — Orleans Sen. Bobby Starr and the two solons from Bennington County, Brian Campion and Dick Sears. Many Bennington-area communities take advantage of the tuitioning system, so it’s a very distinct political environment regarding public schools.

Aside from Starr, every single Democrat whose stance was unknown before today ended up voting “No,” including at least one who was apparently dragged kicking and screaming to the Senate chamber this morning.

That would be Sen. Ann Cummings, who railed against the opposition to Saunders. She called it “as intense and well organized [a] lobbying effort as I have seen,” including the bitter debate over civil unions back in 2000. Cummings called it a “vicious” top-down effort resulting in a flood of cookie-cutter messages from Saunders opponents.

And then she voted “No,” arguing that she couldn’t tell Saunders “to come here and work with people who’ve already declared her anathema.”

So… it’s not  the governor’s  fault for choosing a nominee with sketchy (at best) qualifications. It’s those rabidly partisan folks in the education lobby.  They’re  the ones who forced Cummings to vote “No.” All I can say, Senator, is that it must suck for you when the public elbows its way into [checks notes] democratic decision-making.

Sears echoed the sentiment in milder terms, labeling the “education establishment” “the most powerful lobby in this building.” So . . . it’s all because of special interests. Right.

The award for most interesting speech goes to Sen. Mark MacDonald, which is a sentence I didn’t think I’d be writing anytime soon. While most senators bemoaned the state of public education, MacDonald gave a full-throated defense of Vermont’s schools that focused on the system’s alleged underperformance on standardized tests.

There are “two kinds of tests,” he said. “One, how public school kids in Vermont compare to kids in other states. We do very, very well. Sometimes in the top half dozen.” The other kind: Diagnostic tests, meant to uncover gaps in school performance. MacDonald said that some states make the tests easy, and boast of their high success rates.

Vermont, on the other hand, makes its diagnostic tests tougher, “expecting about half the students not to perform,” he explained. “Then you take a look at the questions they got wrong, and then [the school] knows where they need to change.

“On national test we do a bang-up job,” he concluded. “We’re not afraid to give tough diagnostic tests and use them for improvement.”

I’m not current enough with the educational process to know if MacDonald is telling the truth. But if he is, maybe we should pump the brakes a bit on the “failing schools” narrative.

Anyway, Saunders is soundly rejected and yet she will continue as interim education secretary. According to  Seven Days,  Scott could also wait until adjournment (scheduled for a week and a half from now) and make her the permanent secretary. Either way, her appointment would run through next February when all gubernatorial appointees are up for re-confirmation.

And either way, Saunders enters a difficult job as kind of a lame duck. It’s a bad spot to be in, and she can blame the governor’s hubris for putting her there.

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John Walters is the sole author of The Vermont Political Observer, readable for free (but donations cheerfully accepted) at thevpo.org. Walters has had a long career in print and broadcast journalism. He’s been an observer of Vermont politics since 2011, including a three-year stint as political columnist for Seven Days. He is on the board of NEK Public Journalism. He lives in East Montpelier with his loyal spouse, two house rabbits and two cockatiels.

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