Last week we reported that the Dover School Board has sent a letter in support of a weighting study that is supposed to be carried out by the Vermont Agency of Education. The problem is, the AOE says it can’t do the work needed to complete the study because it doesn’t have the resources.
We don’t buy it. Perhaps we’re conspiracy theorists, but it seems to us the AOE has stonewalled the process because it doesn’t want to open up a Pandora’s box when it comes to education funding for public schools.
When the Vermont Legislature passed the original Act 60 in 1997, in response to the state Supreme Court’s Brigham decision, it was in an effort to meet the equal opportunity clause of the Vermont Constitution as it was applied to education. What Act 60 really attempted to do was to level out funding inequities between towns with large tax bases and low property taxes, and those with smaller bases and higher rates. That effort, viewed across the past two decades, has had mixed results at best. Act 60, along with other attempts to change Vermont’s schools and how Vermonters pay for them, has at times brought stable taxes and at other times pitted towns against one other.
Just recently we have seen the town of Whitingham file suit against the state, calling for an injunction to stop the state from enforcing penalties based on the rising per-pupil costs of the town, caused by a number of factors including declining enrollment and changes in how the state calculates costs.
Then there are demographics to consider. Vermont has an aging population. All of the current “fixes” for education, like Act 46 consolidation, still won’t change the root problem: Vermont is losing school-age children. And rural communities are losing them even faster than larger areas. No act of the Legislature can turn that around. At least we haven’t seen one yet that can do that.
It’s those disadvantages that the weighting study was meant to identify, and to come up with solutions to consider them and level the playing field between large and small school districts.
The Dover board is right to call for the study to be undertaken. Small and rural schools have been wrongly singled out as the major cost drivers of education in Vermont. And yes, if one only looks at per pupil spending, that argument seems to make some sense. But small schools have inherent disadvantages over large schools, starting with the fact that they’re small. That doesn’t make them bad, and in fact some of Vermont’s smallest schools are its highest academic performers.
If one were to borrow the old phrase “follow the money,” the reality is that most of the spending in Vermont takes place in the large districts. But when the per-pupil cost analysis is applied to larger districts, they often can realize 5% or larger budget growth, as long as their per-pupil costs stay away from excess spending penalties. That growth can trigger millions in new spending.
So, despite the best efforts of small districts, like Twin Valley or Dover, they often have to be very creative in how they spend their hard-earned education dollars, while larger districts can eat up substantially more funds while staying below those per-pupil thresholds.
It seems simple to say that school spending controls should be tied to school spending, but sometimes the simple approach is the right approach. If the state really wants to control school spending, then it needs to control school spending. The simplest way would be to include annual caps on spending. There could be modifiers if a school experiences a dramatic increase or decrease in its student population. But a hard cap hits everyone equally, or at least “substantially equal.”
The AOE really needs to conduct the weighting study. The law requires it, and the study may force the Legislature to make long overdue changes to how schools are funded.