By Mal Boright
When he appointed Ruth Stokes to the state Board of Education last week, Gov. Jim Douglas found an individual who has held a number of posts in Vermont’s educational systems.
A Williston representative in the Vermont House from l984 to 1992, Stokes, a Republican, served six years as a University of Vermont trustee and has also been a member of the executive board of the Vermont School Boards Association.
The one-time science teacher started her career in elective and appointed posts as a member of the Williston School Board from 1975 to 1987.
Thus it is no surprise that Stokes will have some priorities in mind when she attends her first state board meeting March 15.
“I am very interested in school choice,” Stokes said. “The board has been working on this issue for the last year or so.”
Stokes thinks school choice is especially important for parents who may have little say in the way schools educate their youngsters.
“Parents who are not happy with the schools have very little they can do,” she said. “Schools don’t address individual problems, so this gives parents a way to vote with their feet.”
Stokes predicted that should the Legislature pass a comprehensive school choice bill, “there would not be a mass exodus from certain schools. The schools, however, would have to pay more attention and be more responsive.”
Another priority for Stokes is bringing down the costs per pupil in the state’s schools.
“We have to take a look at pupil-teacher ratios which are among the highest in the nation,” she said.
The former lawmaker noted that the number of students statewide is going down while the per-student cost is rising.
“No one seems to be able to get a handle on the cost issue,” she said. “There are a lot of factors involved.”
On two other issues that have been on and off the educational radar screen, Stokes was more circumspect.
She believes a statewide teachers’ contract would “have the potential” to save money, but does have other pros and cons.
“This has not proven to be a great thing for a quality of an education system,” she said adding that it raises questions as to where some decisions about local education would be made.
Stokes is also skeptical about moves to cut down the number of school districts in the state to some 12 or 13, based on county lines.
“It is insane that given this small state, the numbers of school districts we have,” she said. “Would doing this save money and be more efficient? Yes.”
“However,” she added, “People feel a kinship and involvement with their local schools. There would be questions as to where decisions about curriculum and other local matters would be made.”
She generally supports the No Child Left Behind initiative from the Bush administration, but does believe funding to be an issue and wonders, “how much funding will follow the mandate?”
As for the role of the state board in Vermont’s education mix, Stokes sees it first of all as a “bully pulpit” and with authority for rule making, “in many areas.”
She observed that the commissioner serves at the pleasure of the board and in fact is an appointee of the board, a matter that several governors have tried to change.
When she takes her seat in March, Stokes will be one of eight members on the board, two of them students.
Most recently Stokes has been and will continue to serve as executive director of the Vermont Student Opportunity Scholarship Fund.
The organization offers partial scholarships to low-income students in grades K-8 who want to attend a private school or a public school outside their home district.