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Vermont vs The Feds

Posted: 2010-06-09

Eminent domain in Vermont.

In mid-May, I attended two public meetings: Bernie Sanders called a Town Meeting in Burlington to hear public concerns about federal education policy and Department of Homeland Security/Customs & Border Protection Agency held a meeting in Franklin on why the Army Corps of Engineers needed to seize a farmer’s land.

Both meetings centered on federal usurpation of local control. The Department of Homeland Security insisted that they need to build a new border station at the tiny Vermont crossing with Quebec known as Morses Line. The first plan was to replace the building, a small, plain brick structure built as a public works project during the Depression and standing on ½ acre, with a $15 million facility spreading out over ten acres . Federal officials tried to wear out the packed town hall with minutiae. About an hour into the convoluted explanation of why they needed to expand the border facility, the word “terrorism” was invoked.

The equivalent terminology from the U. S. Department of Education, under the leadership of Arne Duncan is "turnaround." In the name of this reform, the federal government insists that the principal of the Integrated Arts Academy at H. O. Wheeler Elementary School in Burlington's Old North End must be ousted because student test scores aren't high enough to satisfy the U. S. Department of Education formula. Never mind that this is a school of 97% poverty, a school welcoming immigrant children from 20 different countries, many of whom have been in the U. S. a short time. The U. S. Department of Education decrees that one standardized test fits all.

The first time he met with federal officials about the expansion of the Morses Line border crossing farmer Clement Rainville asked about the amount of traffic through that crossing. The federal official said, "I don't know but I'll get back to you."

The Rainvilles asked four more times. Finally, they were told the Feds couldn't release the info because it "involves national security data." Brian Rainville filed a Freedom of Information request: 2.5 vehicles pass through the Morses Line border crossing each hour. One doesn’t need to file a Freedom of Information request to know that with a student body speaking 20 languages the H. O. Wheeler School does not fit a Federal cookie cutter model.

"National Security" is invoked to stop all argument. The education parallel is "Preparing Students to be workers in the Global Economy." The Feds ordered that the "ten lowest-performing" schools in Vermont be “"estructured" --meaning dump the teachers or dump the principal. "Performance" is judged solely by scores on standardized tests--whether students speak English or not. In return for compliance, Vermont will get $8.5 million in federal funds, which are, of course, laundered Vermont tax dollars. Widely published, longtime Vermont school superintendent William Mathis has documented how much money Vermonters lose in this laundering process.

This is blood money.

By the time the public meeting rolled around, the proposed Morses Line facility had been scaled back. "The amazing shrinking port is now 2.2 acres. The amazing shrinking port should be zero acres," said Brian Rainville, a high school history teacher. His theory is that "Homeland Security has a pile of money they need to spend--$420 million to modernize ports like Morses Line."

The Feds announced that if the Rainville family wouldn't take the money offered, then the land will be taken by eminent domain. Brian Rainville provided the rationale that seems to be missing in discussions with school folk: "They tried to throw some money at me. This is not about money. This is about you folks making a terrible mistake."

If Vermont refused to participate in the Feds distribution of taxpayer money, then control of the schools could be local. But state politicos and bureaucrats grovel for every penny the Feds offer.

The Rainvilles are fortunate that Vermont politicos are standing with them. After Brian Rainville's moving testimony before the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting, Rep. Peter Welch said, "Today a Vermonter was heard, and today a Vermonter made a difference. The process that led to this proposal has failed the family, failed the contractors, failed the community and failed the test of how Vermonters do business. I'm thankful to Brian for his moving testimony and to Chairman Oberstar for listening."

Patrick Leahy sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano informing her he was prepared to close Morses Line during the appropriations process, if necessary. He said he agrees with those at the public meeting that this little-used port is not a critical link in the nation’s security or commerce. On June 3rd, Leahy announced that Napolitano has agreed to close the facility.

After hearing H. O. Wheeler parents speak at the Town Meeting, Bernie Sanders told a Burlington Free Press reporter that the pushed-out principal "is almost a poster child for some of the absurdities of No Child Left Behind and I want to see that addressed."

But don't blame George Bush for this one: It is Obama/Duncan policy that is forcing the principal out. Sanders sits on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions. Maybe the ten principals will be invited to testify. Right now, despite the Federal invasion of their territory, they are staying mum. They could learn something from Brian Rainville, a teacher.

More than a few Vermonters refer to the fact that the U.S. Constitution grants no authority over education to the federal government. The Founders worried about the concentration of power and deemed that the best way to protect individuals and a civil society was to limit centralized power. The Tenth Amendment, part of the Bill of Rights, restates the Constitution's principle of federalism by providing that powers not granted to the national government nor prohibited to the states by the Constitution of the United States are reserved to the states or the people.

The History of the Formation of the Union under the Constitution, published by the United States Constitution Sesquicentennial Commission in 1943, under the direction of the president, the vice president, and the Speaker of the House, contained this exchange in a section titled "Questions and Answers Pertaining to the Constitution":

Q. Where, in the Constitution, is there mention of education?

A. There is none; education is a matter reserved for the states.

We must call on our Congressional delegation to exercise the same worry over our schools that they showed over the farmer’s 2.2 acres. They must cancel the eminent domain the Feds now exercise over our local schools, and as people working for civic democracy, we must work at supporting those schools.

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