“I’m hoping to bring the perspective of the school board to the committee,” Taylor said. “I think a lot of times when we see legislation go through, there’s a divide between the legislative world and where the boots are on the ground.”
Two studies of Vermont education were conducted before the recently adjourned legislative session. One, commissioned by the Legislature and conducted by Picus and Associates, found that Vermont’s education funding system is equitable and not substantially affected by income levels, and Vermont’s students perform well above the national average. Another study, commissioned by Dover and Wilmington and conducted by Northern Economics Consulting, found that there was little evidence of a relationship between tax rates and educational opportunity. The study indicated that Act 60 and Act 68 resulted in an increase in education spending, but the spending didn’t result in better student performance as indicated by standardized testing.
The two towns hired a lobbyist, funded by Dover, to push for legislative action to address issues faced by small schools like those in the Deerfield Valley. Taylor and Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia both testified before the education committee, advocating for a system to measure educational opportunity. They argued that “substantially equal access to education,” a key requirement under the Vermont Supreme Court’s 1997 Brigham decision that led to Act 60, couldn’t be adequately measured until a standard of educational opportunity was defined. Legislation resulting from the process included the creation of the “educational opportunities working group.”
Taylor says there were “unintended consequences” of post-Brigham education funding in Vermont that need to be addressed before the system can be said to be truly equitable. “I think we’re beginning to articulate the challenges smaller schools face in creating excellent academic outcomes.”
Taylor says the committee’s goal should be to create a better system for collecting data so that the state can make an informed assessment of education and education funding, not to draw any specific conclusions. “Ultimately, I’d like to see a system of measurement that gives board members and state agencies a clear picture of what it takes to operate a school, so they can make some intelligent decisions. Right now there isn’t an effective method of collecting data, but it shouldn’t take too much effort to get that and present it in one central place, like the department of education website.”
One of the key questions in evaluating the effectiveness of education dollars, Taylor says, is measuring how districts spend their money. “How much funding is spent on extracurricular courses at the high school and middle school? You can’t expect a small high school to offer the breadth of extracurricular courses that a large high school can, but there should be a reasonable amount of diversity in education, even through college courses or independent study.”
Data on teachers’ salaries and staffing costs should also be collected, says Taylor. “If you have a lot of senior staff, your per-pupil cost will be higher than if you have a mix. You can’t, and wouldn’t want to, fire more experienced teachers, but you could be labeled as a high spending school district.”
Taylor points out that the excess spending penalty under Act 68 was intended to force school boards to look at why their spending is higher than other schools. “But there isn’t any significant source of data to compare our schools to other schools.”
The study group is working with the James M. Jeffords Center for Policy Research. According to their charge, they’ll review and evaluate how Vermont’s education system allocates financial and other resources, and how impediments to opportunity can be mitigated. The group has a deadline of December 15 to deliver a report to the House and Senate education committees.
Taylor is joined by Nancy Richardson, John Hollar, Rep. Sarah Buxton, and Sen. Kevin Mullin (chair) on the committee.