Frustration about funding
May 02, 2013 | 3942 views | 0 0 comments | 382 382 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Rep. Ann Manwaring’s recent update from the Statehouse in Montpelier, on page 5, sheds some interesting light on how our Legislature works, or in this case, doesn’t.

In talking about changes to education funding laws and formulas meant to keep spending in check, and new initiatives for early education programs, she says that in essence the two separate initiatives cancel each other out. Cutting spending on one hand, while increasing it on the other, does seem counterintuitive.

While Manwaring points out the immediate frustration of the bill, there are other, bigger-picture points that shouldn’t be missed in all of this. The Legislature needs to move beyond simply looking at putting money into our state’s education system, and focus on the results of what that money is buying.

Manwaring’s frustration is evident, and understandable, given that she has been working with a group to try and change the paradigm of how Vermont looks at education. Right now, and this has generally been the case in recent history, legislators and administrators are focused mostly on the money that goes into the system. There has been little attention paid to the results of all that spending.

When Act 60 was enacted in 1997, after the state Supreme Court’s “Brigham” decision that called for “substantially equal educational opportunity” throughout the state, legislators at the time focused squarely on money. The reasoning was that if spending for elementary and secondary education was relatively level, education results would also level off. Small schools and big schools, towns with large tax bases and those with small tax bases, would be on an equal playing field. In many ways, legislators chose the path of least resistance, because there had been numerous attempts in the years leading up to Act 60 to redistribute education dollars around the state.

The key questions that were never asked at the time, and in general, are still not being asked today, are “What is all that money paying for?” and “What results are we getting for all that money?”

Legislators and education department administrators should know what the money is paying for, but often do not. Schools essentially get a per student lump sum from the state, roll that into a budget, and the money could go for teachers, textbooks, or new turf for the football field. There is no criteria for what’s important and what’s not, and no back-end accountability. In general, legislators and education department administrators seem loath to dig deep into what education money is really buying, in part because they, and voters, may not like what they find.

That’s frustrating, and not good use of the taxpayers’ money.

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