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House Speaker Shap Smith Says 2015 Is The Year To Curb Education Spending

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Members of House Speaker Shap Smith's education reform group have been getting together since after the close of the 2014 legislative session.

Earlier this year, House Speaker Shap Smith quietly assembled a special group to oversee the creation of an education reform plan. And its work will set the stage for a 2015 legislative session in which public education – not single-payer health care – will be top of mind for House lawmakers.

The group isn’t a legislative committee per se – not too many people even know it exists. But members of Smith’s education reform group have been getting together since after the close of the 2014 legislative session. And by year’s end, Smith says he hopes they’ll deliver the policy recommendations that will serve as the basis for an overhaul of the state’s education system.

“We are now at a moment in time where we could make significant changes to both the education system and the education finance system,” Smith says. “I don’t believe that we have had that opportunity in the past, in particular because I don’t think the public was ready to do that.”

Property taxes, and the rate at which they’re rising, have emerged as perhaps the top political issue of 2014. Republicans dismiss Democrats’ newfound devotion to education reform as an election-year ploy to save their seats in the House.

But Smith says he’s serious about curbing the cost of education, and that 2015 is the year to make it happen. He says the advance work being done by the group will give lawmakers the early start they need to get a meaningful bill across the finish line.

Republicans dismiss Democrats' newfound devotion to education reform as an election-year ploy to save their seats in the House. But Smith says he's serious about curbing the cost of education, and that 2015 is the year to make it happen.

“If you come into the session with a blank slate, there just isn’t enough time to get the kind of work done on a complicated issue like this one,” he says.

The group includes current and former lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, including one-time Democratic House Speaker Gaye Symington, former Republican Rep. Oliver Olsen and outgoing Democratic Rep. Jeff Wilson. Current Democratic lawmakers on the group include Chip Conquest, from Wells River;  Mitzi Johnson, from South Hero; Dave Sharpe, from Bristol. Republican representatives on the group are Bill Johnson, from Canaan, and Bernie Juskiewicz, from Cambridge. The group also includes Brattleboro Rep. Mollie Burke, a Progressive.

Smith also brought in Neale Lunderville, who served as administration secretary under Republican Gov. James Douglas.

The group’s meetings aren’t warned or open to the public, and minutes aren’t recorded. Smith says the off-the-books arrangement is needed to help members of the group feel more “free” to brainstorm different approaches.  

Members of the group say they haven’t landed on a solution yet. But Conquest says he thinks they’ve begun to isolate the problem.

“That we have a very low student-teacher ratio, that … 80 percent or more of almost every school budget is salaries and benefits, and that that’s clearly driving costs, and so if we’re going to address the problem, that has to be looked at,” Conquest says.

Imposing minimum staff-to-student ratios has been a third rail in Vermont politics in the past. But Smith says it’s an issue lawmakers are ready to tackle.

“There’s no doubt that to the extent that we need to change how much we’re spending, we are going to have to take a look at the staffing ratios,” Smith says.

Olsen formerly served in the House as a Republican, but is running unopposed this year as an Independent. He says he’s cautiously optimistic the Legislature will finally deliver on education reform, but he says the window is small.

"It's incredibly frustrating for school board members, members of the public, the voters who are voting on their budgets, to truly understand the impact of the budgets that they're voting on ... because the system is just so incredibly complex." - former Republican Rep. Oliver Olsen

“The first year of a legislative biennium is really the only window to make a major change,” Olsen says. “And I think that’s just political reality. I don’t see that happening in an election year.”

Olsen was architect of an education financing reform proposal that has won considerable attention from the House Committee on Ways and Means. It would reduce reliance on the property tax, and introduce an income tax surcharge, the size of which would depend on spending levels in a taxpayer’s school district.

Olsen says he’s open to other possibilities. But he says Vermont needs to do something about a statewide education funding system, called Act 68, that critics say taxpayers don’t understand.

“It’s incredibly frustrating for school board members, members of the public, the voters who are voting on their budgets, to truly understand the impact of the budgets that they’re voting on ... because the system is just so incredibly complex,” Olsen says.

Lunderville says he worries that local school boards and district administrators are so overwhelmed with financial decisions about staff and infrastructure that they’re unable to devote attention where it belongs: student learning.

He says it might make sense to pull responsibilities for finance and budgeting from local boards, “and go to more of a model like the state has, where there’s one agency, one department on a regional or state level handling those.”

Smith says ensuring the equal access to education – a Supreme Court mandate on which the current financing system was built – will be a requirement of any reform proposal. But he says the 15-year-old funding mechanism now in place no longer serves the state so well.

“Individual spending decisions are financed by a statewide financial system, and they don’t always reflect the best allocation of where the spending can happen,” Smith says. “So I have real concerns right now that … our statewide financing system, which is meant to create an equitable environment, is not up to that task given the individual decision making that’s happening on the spending level.”

The group includes current and former lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. Its meetings aren't warned or open to the public, and minutes aren't recorded.

Smith expended considerable political capital during the last session pushing forward with a bill that would have, over time, mandated the consolidation of some of Vermont’s more than 250 school districts. He says he still favors governance reform as a means of allowing for “flexibility in the staffing” that would be “more efficient economically” for districts.

Conquest was an opponent of Smith’s governance-reform bill. By including in his group people who favor different approaches to the reform dilemma, Smith says it’s more likely that whatever they come up with in the off-session will withstand the pressures of the legislative process.  

Lawmakers’ development of an education reform plan comes as the Shumlin administration puts together a $2.2 billion public financing proposal for single-payer health care. Smith says he’s had only limited and very high-level conversations with the administration about what his education plan might look like.

And that means lawmakers could start the biennium with proposals for two major tax-system overhauls – one for education, and another for health care. Smith says he’s hopeful the Legislature and the administration could somehow harmonize those plans, and solve two of the most stubborn policy conundrums in state government with one grand proposal.

But he says for him, fixing Vermont’s education system is “at the top of the list of priorities” in 2015.

This post was originally published with the headline Special Group Guides Lawmakers' Education Reform Future.

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