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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Kreis: Consolidation Question

I’m constantly telling my graduate students there’s no such thing as a stupid question. If you think it’s stupid, I say, it’s probably not just astute – it’s almost certainly the query that gets to the heart of assumptions that deserve to be examined if only someone had the courage. So now I’m gonna take my own advice.My question concerns the education reform bill now working its way through the Legislature. Some proponents of this bill say we need it to address a looming crisis in the funding of public education. Here’s my question: What crisis?

The assumption here is that because per-student spending is going up, and student enrollments are going down, we need to do something. Close small schools. Consolidate districts. No more tax dollars to send our kids out of state for high school. That sort of thing.

In a way, my stupid question doesn’t require much courage. That’s because I’m actually not the first person to ask it in public. In January, Paul Cillo of the Public Assets Institute went before the House Education Committee and posed the exact same query.

We pay for public education principally through property taxes. But if you adjust property taxes for inflation, there have been no significant increases for five years. Yes, as enrollments decline, per student spending has been going up. But Cillo pointed out that the percentage of our taxes that go toward public education has remained steady for more than 20 years. Likewise, according to Cillo, as a percentage of Vermont’s gross state product, education spending is stable.

The crisis is that we keep asking our schools to do more - then we’re mad when per-student spending goes up. We create economic and social conditions that mean young families can’t afford to stay here - then panic as our student population inevitably declines. We get into a race-to-the-bottom with other states, and we don’t consider the possibility that maybe it’s not such a bad thing that our per-student spending is among the highest in the nation.

I live in Hartland, where forced consolidation might mean the end of our relatively small district: one K-through-8 school and a tuitioning program that means our high schoolers can go almost anywhere. I’m willing to tell my neighbors that this has to go, but only if someone makes the case that education will improve as a result. Otherwise, as far as I can tell, the school consolidation bill is just a solution in search of a problem.