It’s important to remember that draft bills are a work in progress, and if and when they become law, often look substantially different from when they were first introduced. With that in mind, here are a few things we’d like to see any education funding overhaul bill include, things that are missing from the current draft bill.
Spending caps, for one.
Any new plan to change how education is funded in Vermont should take into account real stresses on the education fund, such as total spending, and not rely on relatively arbitrary per-pupil averages. Cost containment should absolutely be included in any new funding formula. But it’s not enough to rely on the per-pupil averages, which is a benchmark of the current system. Those averages don’t take into account the reality of declining enrollment, especially in rural districts, school choice, or a host of other forces that financially stress a school district and have nothing to do with direct spending.
Any bill should offer recognition that there are different cost factors at play between large districts and small, rural ones and offer methods to compensate for those. Despite the consolidation brought about by Act 46, there are still significant differences in how large, urban districts can mask hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost increases, compared to smaller districts. This is because of the per-pupil spending calculation and how it is weighted toward larger districts with more students.
The state needs to move away from the per-pupil averages it uses to track school spending, and look at actual dollars and cents. By doing so, a hard cap would be one way to control school spending and keep rising property taxes in check.
Equity of outcomes is another concept that needs to be included.
Any bill should include language to require equity-based education outcomes, instead of just equity on the money. While some might argue outcome equity is not related to education funding, that has been a real issue for small districts like Twin Valley, and was a big part of what pushed the town of Whitingham to file suit against the state. The lack of educational opportunities by the current funding systems, which places financial penalties on districts for crossing those artificial per-pupil spending thresholds, is real and needs to be addressed. Smaller school can’t offer the same opportunities as larger schools, in large part due to the restraints of the per-pupil funding formula.
Legislators need to also realize most public school districts, their staff, and board members, work extremely hard to keep costs in line. Sometimes it appears, based on comments made by legislators, they think school districts are run by a bunch of profligates willing to spend every last tax dollar they can get their hands on. It’s just not true. Most school board members are fiscally prudent, and in smaller districts, know where just about every dollar is going. Despite being prudent, many small district board members are understandably frustrated when they can’t offer a robust learning environment due to the per-pupil penalties.
We know it’s early in the process, but better to speak out now while bills are still in their formative stages. While a revised education funding process won’t stem the loss of students due to changing demographics, it could make for a more fair, comfortable, and transparent system for all Vermont.