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House Speaker Shap Smith Gets Education Reform Plans

Earlier this year, House Speaker Shap Smith quietly assembled a panel of lawmakers and policy analysts to devise a plan for education reform. On Friday, the nine-person group submitted a set of recommendations in advance of the 2015 legislative session.

While most politicians in Montpelier – Gov. Peter Shumlin among them – now say Vermont schools have a “spending problem,” there’s far less agreement on how to solve it. And while Shumlin favors leaving spending decisions to school boards, Smith is among the people pushing for a substantial overhaul of either the education financing system, governance system, or both.

Smith has said he hopes to use recommendations from the “Education Finance Working Group” as a springboard for legislative action in 2015. The recommendations submitted Friday lay out three reform options, which range from a “Renovation Plan” that would tweak the existing framework, to a more fundamental rewrite of the education finance system.

The “Renovation Plan” features eight ideas to “incrementally rework” the existing finance system, known alternatively as Act 60 and Act 68. The proposal would impose stiff tax penalties on schools with the highest per-pupil expenditures; eliminate special financial assistance to small schools; encourage districts to voluntarily consolidate; and explore the possibility of a statewide teacher contract.

The other two options would remake the financing system altogether. One proposal, called the “Variable Income Tax Model,” would reduce reliance on the property tax, and instead use the income tax to raise the lion’s share of education revenue. The income tax would vary from district to district, depending on spending levels at local schools. And since the income tax would affect all residents of the district, and not just property owners, proponents say the model would encourage more Vermonters not only to vote on budgets, but to participate in the budget-building process.

The “Regional Block Grant Model,” meanwhile, proposes an even more fundamental reworking of education financing. Under this plan, the governor and the Legislature – not a local board – would decide how much Vermont will spend on education every year. The state would then create “regional educational entities,” and send those entities a block grant for school spending, based on the number of students in that district.

The REEs would then decide how best to split, and spend, the money among the schools within its purview. Supporters say this model would give the state direct control over education costs, while setting up regional authorities that would be able to take a big-picture view of education that the current governance model lacks. There are more than 250 school districts in Vermont, and proponents of education reform say this  small-district system prevents the kind of collaboration and consolidation needed to respond to a shrinking student population.

The group has additionally urged the speaker to expand the role of the House Committee on Education to include matter of finance as well as student outcomes; the House Committee on Ways and Means has traditionally had jurisdiction over school financing issues.

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