A group of legislators responsible for proposing a redesign Vermont’s K-12 education funding system began work on Tuesday, electing Senator Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, and Representative Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro to be its co-chairs.
The charge of the “Student Weighting Report Implementation Task Force,” as the eight-member panel is called, is fundamentally about how Vermont requires landowners to pay for schools. .
In Vermont, school district budgets are developed and approved locally, when voters say yes or no to spending plans at the ballot box. These budgets are then financed, in full, by the State Education Fund, which is partially financed by property taxes.
Local property tax rates are then based on the amount spent by a district âper equalized pupilâ.
The state uses a weighted formula to calculate the per-pupil expenditure for each district, which is supposed to take into account that some children will need additional resources and cost more to serve.
But the researchers argued in a 2019 report commissioned by lawmakers that the current formula ‘weights’ have never been empirically derived – and are particularly out of step with the cost of educating poor students and those who learn English or live in rural areas.
Vermont spends generously on its schools, but the distribution of resources is not exactly equal. When regional differences in costs are taken into account, Green Mountain state spends more, on average, per student than any other state in the country, according to a recent Education Week analysis. cited by Legislative Assembly analysts. But the state also has the second-largest gap in the United States between its top-spending and least-spending school districts: $ 12,865 per student.
âFor years, I was really taken aback by the gaps I saw in funding between [district] I lived and the one I worked in, âMartine Gulick, a member of the Burlington school board, told the panel Tuesday. “And I realized that the budget for my library, where I worked, was 10 times the budget for the Burlington High School library.”
The question for the task force is how to ensure that more money is spent where it is most needed. Many local school officials, especially in so-called “underweight” districts, say the answer is simple: just adjust the weights to give districts serving marginalized students additional fiscal capacity, and leave local school boards and voters decide how best to serve their students.
But some are not so sure.
The Public Assets Institute, a left-wing think tank from Montpellier, has long advocated for more equitable school funding. But he argues Simply adjusting the weights will not ensure that the school districts that serve the most needy students actually spend more, and will only make an already Byzantine system more difficult for local voters and land taxpayers to decipher.
âThe funding system also already has the problem of being way too complex for many voters, and I just think that will add a whole other layer of complexity,â said Jack Hoffman, senior analyst at Public Assets.
Instead, Hoffman said lawmakers may want to take a closer look at categorical aid. Just as the state currently gives schools extra funds for things like special education and transportation, it could send grants to schools with large populations of low-income students.
But relying on outright help to correct inequalities instead of adjusting weights is a “no-starter” for the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a group of more than 20 school districts advocating for reform, according to Maggie Lenz. , a lobbyist for the Coalition.
“It allows certain districts to have flexibility and then it controls how other districts provide those services and spend that extra fiscal capacity, âLenz said. âIt’s extremely condescending.
Tuesday’s meeting took place, like all legislating since March 2020, on Zoom. But the group will begin meeting in person from mid-July, when lawmakers return to work face-to-face at the Statehouse in Montpellier.
The working group will meet over the summer and fall and its final report is due on December 15th. provisional work plan plans public hearings in September and October.
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