Results, value missing from legislative standoff

Are Vermont schools a good deal or are taxpayers ponying up too much to fund a bloated system?  That is the dilemma many in this state grapple with on a constant basis.  Legislators spend hours debating what to do to make the state’s public schools at the primary and secondary levels more affordable. They also spend countless hours debating how much schools cost, in terms of tax dollars, and whether or not Vermont can sustain the current education financing system. 
The reason we bring this up is Vermont may be on the brink of a state government shutdown.  That is the threat by Gov. Phil Scott if he and leaders in the Legislature can’t reach a budget agreement in the next three weeks or so.   Whether or not that happens hinges a great deal on whether the parties can reach a compromise on education funding. 
The parties are seemingly far apart on just how much education should cost Vermonters.  In particular, how much, if at all, statewide property taxes should rise to pay for public schools. 
We’ll spare readers the gritty details of the tax debates. The bigger issue, and one that seems to have a million different answers, is how much rank-and-file Vermonters are willing to pay for education. Is it hold the line at all costs, as Scott says voters want? Or is it regular, relatively modest increases, as House and Senate leaders support and say are in the best long-term interests of the state? 
As we said, there are myriad answers. But one question that constantly gets pushed to the back of the discussion without any clear answer is “How good do we want our schools to be?” Hand in hand with that question is “Are we getting our money’s worth?” Those are difficult questions to answer, and generally take a back seat in discussions about education in Vermont.  That’s a shame. They’re also difficult to quantify. On the surface, there are some really good schools in Vermont, locally and around the region. There are also some that are not so good. Some of those that are good cost more than others to operate, some less. There are all kinds of academic measures and reasons for schools being better or worse, but in general that issue of “how good” schools should be is often lost.  Value is also seldom discussed in any meaningful way. 
Small schools, and rural small schools in particular, seem to suffer most when it comes to quality of education concerns.  There are any number of reasons: board policies, lack of resources, lack of opportunity, poverty, geographic isolation. Pick any two of them, and they will more than likely play a significant role in any discussion about poor-performing schools. 
That’s not to say all small, rural schools. We have examples here in the Deerfield Valley of schools that perform well academically. Dover School just finished implementing the International Baccalaureate program.  Students at Wardsboro School continue to raise test scores and perform well. 
But there is no doubt that small- to medium-sized high schools suffer disproportionately. Twin Valley, Leland & Gray, and Arlington are schools in the region that have had to cut programs and staff as student populations decline. That leads to decreased opportunity for students.
So when legislators talk about education costs and how to control expenses, they should also consider what it takes to make all schools the best they can be.  That doesn’t always fit into a tidy “one-size-fits-all” solution that can be summed up in a budget bill. Some schools, by their nature, will cost more than others to produce similar results.  
In many ways, education results should be the overriding  concern of legislators, and everyone else.  That’s not to say that costs shouldn’t be considered, They should. Vermonters should know if they’re getting their money’s worth or not.  But if Vermont wants to graduate high school students who can function and contribute in the 21st century, it needs to consider the results of what we’re paying for on a school-by-school basis, just not how much.  
By doing that, legislators and the governor might be having a very different discussion at the Statehouse right now.

The Deerfield Valley News

797 VT Route 100 North
Wilmington, VT 05363

Phone: 802-464-3388
Fax: 802-464-7255

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