In the Vermont School Boards Association’s October 2013 newsletter, Paul Cillo claimed that “Vermont is getting its money’s worth” in education, based on the 2012 Picus report. While our system does work well at many levels, I strongly disagree that the money we are spending is worth it, or necessary. We’ve crossed a line of diminishing returns, and it’s taking a toll on our economy and quality of life. Our notorious high cost of living keeps going up, spurred by ever-climbing property taxes. What good is a great school system if families can’t afford to live here?
Picus statistics do confirm that our schools are doing a good job. For example, Vermont’s NAEP scores continually rank among the top 10 in the nation, with a steady increase in high school graduation rates. From 2003 to 2011, Vermont’s test scores for both math and reading in the fourth and eighth grades improved, with math and reading scores above the national average. All good news, and kudos to our teachers (who rank only 28th in salaries in the nation, by the way).
Let’s keep things in perspective, however. Is our per-pupil cost of $16,788 money well spent or necessary? Other Picus findings show that the slight increases in NAEP math and reading scores for fourth- and eighth-grade students are less than the average increases nationally and among other New England states over this time period. Student performance on most aspects of the New England Common Assessment Program has only modestly increased. And, while Vermont’s high school graduation rate of 88% is higher than the national average, only 60% of graduates enroll in college within 16 months of graduation, a figure that is below the national average and any other New England state. As a point of reference, Campaign for Vermont’s position paper, Putting Children First, calculates that if Vermont’s per-pupil spending equaled that of Massachusetts, which has better student outcomes than Vermont and likely the best in the nation, Vermont education costs would be $168 million less.
Maybe public schools are a bargain elsewhere, but here in Vermont, we’re shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue, well beyond our means. Our state has the third highest cost per student in the nation and the highest in New England, even though we rank only 19th in median household income. We have the smallest average school district size (299 students vs. 929 in New England and 3,212 in the U.S.) and the smallest pupil-to-teacher ratio with 9.8 to 1. At the same time, our student population declines every year, while our education costs keep going up (+8.3% from 2012 to 2014).
This spending spree is unsustainable. It’s time to balance good results and warm sentiments with the practical realities of what we can afford and really need to spend on education. It’s time to start focusing on productivity: how to do more with less – with technology, leadership, and good old Vermont ingenuity. And, by the way, it’s time to stand up to the teachers’ union. Only when these things starts to happen will I join Mr. Cillo in declaring that Vermont’s truly getting its money’s worth.
Beverly Biello, Panton