I have been troubled by the focus of the governance legislation since I first heard about it. It seeks to consolidate the governance of our school system away from the current 228 school districts down to 45 or so regional districts, eliminating school boards, but creating in their place unelected local advisory councils, supervisory districts to replace supervisory unions (apparently SDs have more centralized power than SUs do), and some other features that seem to me to be devolving power upward, which I believe is counterproductive to the real job of improving education opportunities and outcomes for all Vermont children.
As I have said in previous columns, I believe that our education system is a bottom-up system, and not straight-line, hierarchal, top-down organization, one in which someone at a higher level gets to tell everyone at a lower level what to do and how to do it. This was true long before the Act 60/68 funding structure was put in place, and it will remain true unless the state takes over and runs our schools, regardless of Act 60/68. To me this governance bill is yet another in a long line of laws and regulations that once again seeks to strengthen the hand from above without recognizing the real system frame that actually exists, one that would benefit much more readily from strategies born of “enable and empower” rather than “direct and control”.
The only member of the Vermont Board of Education to vote against supporting the governance bill was Bill Mathis, and he explained his reasons in an op-ed on VtDigger.org on Tuesday, April 8. I urge you to find his article and consider the reasons he articulates for his opposition.
The education financing bill, which annually sets state-wide property tax rates for the next year, does so much more this year. To step back a year to last year’s rate-setting bill, rates were set in a stand-alone bill, and all other issues that the Ways and Means Committee wanted to address were in a separate bill. In the last biennium, acting in the name of greater transparency, Rep. John Moran and I had introduced a bill that would require stand-alone legislation to set tax rates. Our bill, itself, was not acted on by the committee, but its focus was implemented. Now to this year’s bill; H.889 passed the House last Friday and is now in the Senate. The committee reverted to its past practices of incorporating into one bill the job of setting rates and several other items designed to shape the system that guides the flow of money into and out of the education fund.
The Legislature has to set property tax rates, so the implication of putting other elements that alter the framework of the education funding mechanism in the rate-setting bill is that we “must” set rates so voting against the bill because of dislike of other elements in the bill will result in defaulting to the high property tax rates set when the original Act 60/68 bill was passed several years ago. Yet one part of the bill takes on more directly the job of forcing small schools, some 104 of which now benefit from nearly $8 million in small schools grants from the state education fund, to consolidate by eliminating this source of funding. Granted, the bill doesn’t implement this for three years, and then reduces the grants by one-third over three years until the full amount is withdrawn. The argument the committee makes is that taxpayers in these districts are being subsidized by all other property tax payers in the state, and in the name of equity, this is not fair.
When the bill was being debated on the floor of the House on Thursday, an amendment was introduced to eliminate this section of the bill, thus to preserve Small Schools Grants. The amendment was defeated, but it got a large number of votes. (On the Legislative website, www.leg.state.vt.us, please see the House Journal of Thursday, April 3, for language of the amendment and the vote.)
Last Friday, during the third and final consideration of the bill, I introduced an amendment that would have required an analysis of spending changes in the education system as a result of eliminating this funding for small schools. It, too, was defeated, but got a similar large number of votes in support. But what surprised me was to hear from the Ways and Means Committee members that the education funding formula, that Gordian Knot, that traffic cop that guides the flow of revenue into the Education Fund (67% of which is property taxes), is not considered “spending” when it leaves the fund. That is a fundamentally different framework for the education fund than it is for the other two major state funds (the general fund and the transportation fund) where spending, how the money is used, is as fundamental a consideration as is the revenue that supports the spending.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that we who labor in the public sector need to speak in dispassionate terms, so admitting to emotional terms like “frustration” seems a violation of that maxim. But I continue to believe that we at the state level need to adapt our thinking to the 21st century outcomes we need to achieve for all our children, how that goal might need to alter how we deliver education in our schools before we, yet again, drive a new governance model from the top down and remove from 107 schools a source of funding that has been a part of the Act 60/68 funding strategy since the beginning.