DEERFIELD VALLEY- House bills that would have significantly affected education financing and governance in Vermont received a cold reception in the Senate, according to local legislators. But one of the biggest changes in education slipped by almost unnoticed by many, a provision authored by the House Appropriations Committee that will establish a uniform statewide system for data collection.
A provision of one House bill that would have phased out the state’s small schools grant over three years was scrubbed by the Senate. The final version of the bill passed by the House and Senate will lower the threshold for the excess spending penalty from the current 125% of the statewide average per-pupil cost to 123%, limits the amount of under/over charge for tuition that can be charged, and requires a study of the renters’ rebate program.
Rep. John Moran, of Wardsboro, whose district would have lost nearly $400,000 in state education funding under the House bill, says he continued to lobby against the provision. “Part of my job as representative is to stop bad things from happening,” he said. “I talked to the people in the Senate and the section of the bill that would have eliminated the small schools grant was taken out by the Senate committee. So that’s good.”
H.883, a bill that passed the House in a divided vote of 76 to 60, would have slashed the number of school districts from 282 to about 45, consolidated supervisory unions, and eliminated local elected school boards and replaced them with appointed advisory councils. The Senate responded with a watered-down bill that included a voluntary consolidation plan, but the bill died in the House without time for a vote before the adjournment.
Rep. Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington, expressed pleasure at the demise of the two bills. “My greatest joy around education this session is that nothing happened,” she says. “The bills under consideration were never enacted.”
Legislators and local school officials agree that the issues of consolidation, governance, and education spending will continue to be hot topics for the next session, but Manwaring hopes a new approach is emerging. “This bill didn’t address changes that are happening in schools to prepare kids for the 21st century,” she says. “There was lip service that it would save money and get better outcomes, but there was no path that took you there that I could see.”
Manwaring says a group of legislators, which includes Rep. Tristan Toleno, of Brattleboro, has started looking at education from a point of view that includes less “top-down” thinking. “We’ll have an effort going through the summer and have something in place to have some action next year,” she says. “And I’m hearing about activity growing among school boards.”
Dover School Board member Laura Sibilia, who has had close contact with Dover’s lobbyist through the session, says she was surprised that the initiatives offered by the House collapsed in the Senate. “Through the session we heard that it was definitely happening, and then heard that it’s definitely not happening,” she says. “The fact that we ended up with nothing is shocking to me.”
Sibilia agrees that it won’t be the last attempt to change school governance or education funding, but she says the failure of legislation this year gives the town an opportunity to plan for the next legislative session. “It allows us to breathe a sigh of relief,” she says. “We’ve staved off radical reform for two years. Now we have to plan for what’s coming next.”
There was one education reform provision passed by the Legislature that appears to have stayed under the radar, and local education leaders are hailing it as a victory. According to Manwaring, the provision funds the creation of a statewide uniform data collection system, training for business managers to use it, and an Agency of Education position to analyze the data. The provision was added to the appropriations bill by House Appropriations Committee Chair Martha Heath, with Manwaring’s support and assistance.
Although a new data collection system may sound like minutia for bean counters, Manwaring and others say the system is one of the reforms they’ve been seeking for the past several years. Currently, there’s no uniform system for reporting education budgets and expenditures to the state, and critics say it has prevented any analysis of education spending among schools in the state or meaningful evaluation of the relationship between spending and student success.
Manwaring notes that the provision passed with the support of Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, which bodes well for the development of a robust data collection and analysis program. “She’s a data person, and this is data we need. This will finally answer the question of what we’re getting for the money we spend.”
“This is the missing piece,” Sibilia agrees. “The ability to compare money spent with outcomes.”
Manwaring says the information gleaned from the new program will also help answer a question of how fairly education funding is distributed. She points out that Vermonters support the principle of fairness, and have created an income-based method of paying the education tax, as well as a progressive income tax. “We look at the revenue side,” she says, “but not on the spending side. All we’re doing is sending funding out based on equalized spending per-pupil, plus whatever else anyone wants to spend. Why haven’t we applied the principle of fairness to the spending part,or the need, or the outcomes?”