Ventriss Opinion Editorial on Act 46

By Lisa Ventriss, President, Vermont Business Roundtable

Art Woolf’s latest critique of K-12 education spending and outcomes, and Act 46 implementation in particular (“Is VT getting what it pays for in education?” Burlington Free Press 3/10/16) made me remember some important milestones along Vermont’s path to education reform.

In 2006, the Vermont Business Roundtable and partners commissioned a study entitled, “Vermont State Public Education Expenditure Overview and Analysis”, which was intended to provide a broad overview of the primary “cost drivers” affecting public education expenditures in the state, and examine factors that may affect future expenditure growth. Included in the study’s fact set were charts that showed two important trends: 1) despite a steady decline in student population, public education’s personnel costs (salaries and benefits) and purchased support service costs steadily rose; and during that same time frame, 2) the Vermont Legislature modified the education funding formula four times without making any sustained effort to control costs.

Following the release of that study, the Roundtable began calling on lawmakers to alter Vermont’s system of education governance to encourage, fund and motivate communities and schools to work together to solve issues, and to take a hard look at the delivery system to improve quality while reducing costs. Later, the Center for American Progress’s 2013 study entitled, “Size Matters: A Look at School-District Consolidation”, showed that Vermont ranked 6th among states with the largest amount of districts with “lost potential cost”, meaning money that would not have to be spent if districts were larger.

Then, in 2014, the Roundtable and partners convened the Green Mountain Imperative; a two-day summit for 200 hand-picked statewide attendees representing anyone impactful of or impacted by Vermont’s education system, to identify breakthrough innovations to our education system that reflected our three consensus goals to: 1) ensure all children develop the skills they need to thrive in both career and civic life; 2) provide this education in the most effective, efficient and accountable way; and, 3) reduce inequity of outcomes across the state. Among the top three recommendations was “simplified governance” of the education system in Vermont.

Also in that year, the Picus Report, an adequacy study to identify a base per pupil spending level sufficient to provide all students with robust opportunities to meet college and career-ready standards, revealed the potential to save 10 percent of the 2014-15 spending level for PK-12 education by identifying the most efficient and effective ways to allocate the substantial educational resources Vermont currently provides for public education.

Now today, following the important leadership of the Legislature and education community, with support from the Roundtable, we are excitedly watching the implementation of Act 46, which was enacted last summer to: provide substantial equity in both the quality and equity of educational opportunities statewide; maximize operational efficiencies through increased flexibility to manage, share, and apply resources with a specific goal of increasing the district-level ratio of students to full-time equivalent staff; promote transparency and accountability; achieve better cost-effectiveness; and, operate on a scale that makes program implementation more organized, manageable and sustainable.

The goals of Act 46 call on district leaders to address the most significant cost center, which is the cost of personnel.

Since passage of Act 46 we have seen thirty-nine communities vote in support of unification.  Most recently during Town Meeting, voters in twenty-three school districts voted overwhelmingly to create five new unified districts. These communities are looking to a future when opportunities will be better for children, and taxpayers will get more for their dollar.

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Addendum: Picus, et al released an updated report, “Using the Evidence-Based Method to Identify Adequate Spending Levels
for Vermont Schools” to the Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office in January 2016.