In divided decision, Senate committee votes to recommend Zoie Saunders as education secretary

Education Secretary Zoie Saunders speaks at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Education Secretary Zoie Saunders speaks at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) Glenn Russell

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VtDigger

Published: 04-25-2024 4:31 PM

The Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 on Wednesday to favorably recommend Zoie Saunders as the next education secretary.

The Senate is expected to vote on Saunders’ confirmation next week. She needs the support of a majority of the 30-member body, though the chamber currently has one vacancy due to the resignation of former Sen. Dick Mazza.

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, the committee’s chair, as well as Sen. David Weeks, R-Rutland, and Sen. Terry Williams, R-Rutland, voted in support of Saunders.

Sen. Martine Gulick, D-Chittenden Central, and Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham, voted against recommending Saunders.

The vote came a day after the committee held a 90-minute hearing for Saunders, who was appointed by Gov. Phil Scott last month and has been working in the role since April 15.

While cabinet appointments in Vermont are typically rubber stamped by the Senate, Saunders’ appointment has garnered considerable pushback from lawmakers and educators alike.

Saunders’ resume has drawn sharp criticism, particularly her years spent as an executive for Charter Schools USA, a for-profit corporation based in Florida.

Her most recent role, serving three months as chief strategy and innovation officer for Broward County Public Schools in Florida, is her only experience working directly for a public school district.

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“I left the hearing yesterday feeling like some of the answers were lacking,” Hashim said before Wednesday’s vote. As the only senator to explain his position before voting, he singled out Saunders for declining to elaborate on her education policy ideas: “I felt like there was a lack of substance there.”

Wednesday’s vote coincided with the Vermont-NEA, a state teachers union, urging its members via email to tell their local senators to vote “no” on Saunders’ confirmation.

“Instead of offering a vision for public schools, the nominee offered jargon-laden platitudes,” the message reads.

Following Tuesday’s hearing, committee members discussed publicly their initial thoughts on how Saunders handled questioning.

“I was impressed by the depth of knowledge having been here, clearly she’s been studying Vermont,” Campion said. “I might be totally missing something here but I left impressed.”

Williams similarly offered a favorable opinion of Saunders’, calling her “very composed” during the hearing.

Gulick, who questioned Saunders most intensely, said she wanted the incoming secretary to provide a more substantive vision for Vermont’s public education system.

“I didn’t hear an answer. I didn’t get the meat that I wanted there, and that disappointed me,” she said.