In 2011, the Legislature undertook an evaluation of Vermont’s education funding system known collectively as Act 60/68 after the two laws under which we now operate our education system in Vermont. The report of findings of that effort, known as the Picus Report, was issued to the Legislature in January 2012, and it did find that how the money gets into the education fund is indeed equitable, which was one of the major goals of the original Act 60.
But what the Picus study did not do, and was not asked to do, was examine funding as it leaves the education fund to determine if it purchases equal or even substantially equal education opportunity for all Vermont children.
In Wilmington and Dover we have been concerned for a long time that the equalized per pupil payment that our small schools receive each year does not buy the same educational opportunity for our children as it buys in larger schools.
To investigate that question, and others, our two towns commissioned a study done by Northern Economic Consulting Inc, of Westford. It was published in January, 2012. The study focused on high schools and reached the conclusion that “larger high schools in Vermont offer greater education opportunities in core academic courses, fine arts, athletics, and extracurricular activities than do smaller high schools.”
Dover and Wilmington school boards and selectboards have been further concerned to watch policy actions from the state over the last few years focus on economy of scale solutions to address Vermont’s high per pupil expenditure. Granted, the main focus has been on consolidating supervisory unions, not schools, which may well be productive education public policy. At the same time, there has been considerable discussion about, and growing support for, eliminating the state’s small schools grant, which supports schools with fewer than 100 students. So, over the long run, the question is: Are our smaller schools in the cross hairs of state policy?
According to the department of education’s data, over 40% of Vermont’s pre-K-12 students are educated in towns with fewer than 500 students, and the average per pupil cost is less than it is in the largest towns, those with more than 1,000 students.
Economy of scale thinking does not value small. It seeks ever larger entities on the theory that money will be saved and that the resulting larger entities will be more efficient. But efficient does not mean effective. And in the world of education, effective means outcomes for children, all Vermont children. We pat ourselves on the back in Vermont for almost always being in the top five states in the country when measuring our children by standardized tests. But when results are measured factoring in Vermont’s favorable demographics, we don’t fare much better than the average of all states across the country. In addition, and perhaps most damning, the United States as a whole is 16th in the world. And of even more concern is that year after year too many Vermont students are consistently not proficient. Those are the outcomes we have now, school by school across the state. Is this an effective use of the $1.3 billion that flows out of the education fund?
Based on the premise that if we, the state education department and board (and now the governor), supervisory unions, local school boards, principals and classroom teachers keep doing what we have always been doing, we will get the same results we’ve been getting. So the question is what information/data is needed to permit different decisions to be made at all levels leading to fulfillment of the promise of Brigham of equal or at least substantially equal education opportunities?
Rep. John Moran and I introduced legislation early in this past session asking for a legislative study committee to address this question, and that legislation became part of Act 156 enacted in 2012. The framework of the working group established in that law grew out of conversations with UVM’s Jeffords Center and the Center for Complex Systems. The working group, chaired by Sen. Kevin Mullen and known as the Educational Opportunities Working Group, is entering a contract with the Jeffords Center that will lead to a report in December that illustrates a model of how data on funding, opportunities to learn, and outcomes can inform decision making.
This is not a rich town/poor town concern or a sending versus receiving town divide. This is about fulfilling the promise of Brigham for all our children. It is about the effectiveness of our education system as a prime driver of the economic health of all of Vermont. This is about looking at a very large sum of money and finding tools that offer opportunities to use it more effectively to find better outcomes for our children. And it is about preserving our local schools and the role they play in the fabric of every one of our communities.