By Mary Barrosse Schwartz, Executive Director
VBR Research and Education Foundation
After a challenging town meeting season during which 35 cities and towns rejected school budgets, Vermont legislators are appropriately focused on education policy relative to saving money. The House Ways and Means Committee is proposing a four-cent Homestead tax increase and are suggesting mechanisms to limit spending increases in future years.
While it is appropriate to address the overall rise in property taxes over the last fifteen years, even in light of the 20% decline in enrollment, proponents of a strong educational system hope that cuts will be strategic. Certainly with the second highest spending per child in the nation at a whopping total of $1.5B, Vermont policy makers should be able to find some ways to cut spending.
However, finding strategic ways to cut is all but impossible with the current education finance system. School districts decide local spending, taxpayers vote on the budget at town meeting, and the bill is sent to the state. The legislature sets the statewide average tax rates for residential and business property, but locals decide how the funds are to be used. The legislature doesn’t weigh in on teachers salaries or benefits, on class sizes, or student-teacher ratios.
So, how does the legislature respond to taxpayer pressure to reduce spending? One possible way is to examine the education delivery system. H.883 envisions a delivery system of pre-k to 12, with far fewer school districts than the current 273. Might a delivery system of 45-55 districts forming larger operational and taxing entities provide opportunities for better educational services and funding stability? Many think so. The bill calls for setting a course to that end, and provides technical resources to address the important issues of school choice and voter representation within the new districts.
We hope it will save some of the costs of administrative overhead, provide for more efficient deployment of human and monetary resources, but most importantly improve student opportunity and outcomes. There are many details to be worked out, but perhaps equity of opportunity could be improved for Vermont children as districts grow to contain all kinds of schools.
In the meantime, a very important preschool bill may founder this year because with no control over the massive bulk of education spending, the legislature is desperately searching for anything new it can cut. With an estimated cost of $1.6m per year for the next three years, H.270 barely adds to overall education spending. The cost represents one-tenth of one cent in the property tax rate increase.
At the same time, the bill will make preschool available in 38 towns and cities, where public pre-k is not currently offered. In one city where elementary schools have twice the state average for children receiving free and reduced lunch, more and more is spent annually for special education, while proficiency rates in literacy and numeracy are dropping. The bill will allow children to have access to public pre-k, despite their zip code.
To those who appreciate accountability and who wish the state could increase the focus on outcomes from social and education spending, H.270 adds to the quality of public pre-k by adding evaluation and monitoring to the system. Adding access, quality, and accountability to pre-k is important, especially in towns where the achievement gap is growing annually.