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

Legislature To Spend $300,000 For Study On The Cost Of Public Schools

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Angela Evancie
/
VPR/file
House Speaker Shap Smith, pictured here in January, led a push in Montpelier earlier this year to revamp an education governance model. Part of the deal to get the reform bill through included an "adequacy study," which will happen this summer.

The Legislature is about to spend $300,000 to figure out how much it should cost to educate Vermont students. It’s still an open question what they will do with the information once they have it.

Lawmakers dedicated a good chunk of the last legislative session to a fierce debate over education reform. Their deliberations yielded a piece of legislation that supporters say will lower costs and improve student outcomes. 

But throughout the process, some legislators pondered a simple question: How much should it cost to give a decent education to a Vermont student?

Enough people care about the answer that lawmakers found $300,000 in a tough budget year for yet another study on the cost of public schools. 

“Many people these days are asking whether the per-pupil spending average that we have is too high or too low, and whether some sort of adequacy number might allow us to save some money,” says House Speaker Shap Smith.

Smith led a push in Montpelier earlier this year to revamp the education governance model. As part of a deal to get the reform bill through, he agreed to include what’s known as an “adequacy study.” 

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office is now looking for an outside contractor it hopes will be able to tell policy makers, once and for all, how much it ought to cost to administer a decent education.

"Many people these days are asking whether the per-pupil spending average that we have is too high or too low, and whether some sort of adequacy number might allow us to save some money." - House Speaker Shap Smith

Adequacy is being defined as the quality standards that have been adopted by the state Board of Education.

The average per-pupil cost to education a student in Vermont now stands at about $15,000.

“Now many people suggest that adequacy would be a way to show we could spend less per pupil in Vermont than we do now, and still get a good education for our kids,” Smith says. 

Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe, the Democratic chairman of the House Committee on Education, isn’t so sure the analysis will vindicate that perspective. “I have a feeling that the number could come in quite a bit higher than [$15,000],” Sharpe says. “If you look at what our traditional academies are spending, what it actually costs to educate a child at St. Johnsbury Academy or Burr & Burton, I think it is close to $20,000.”

"Is there a right number? If there is, what is that right number?" - Bristol Rep. Dave Sharpe

Sharpe says many lawmakers and advocates in the education debate wanted to be able to assign a dollar amount to “adequacy.”

“Is there a right number? If there is, what is that right number?” Sharpe says.

No matter the answer independent consultants come back with, don’t expect the findings to shape any substantial education reform bills in 2016. Sharpe says the findings might be used to reconsider the high-spending penalties imposed on school districts where per-pupil spending exceeds statutory thresholds.

But Smith says schools will need time to adjust to the district consolidation legislation signed into law earlier this month. And he says that lawmakers should hold off on additional reforms to education governance, or the financing system used to fund the system, until they do. “Going and doing major reform again next year does not make any sense,” Smith says.

Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann is among the critics of the new study. “My initial reaction to this when it was there is it was just silly,” she says.

“They don’t know these students. They don’t know the districts. They don’t know the needs." - Stowe Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Scheuermann has sought to replace the statewide education funding system with a regional version that would in her view “return to Vermonters a sense of responsibility and accountability for their budgets and their spending.”  

Scheuermann says taxpayers have funded enough education studies already; she says consultants and lawmakers have no business telling local districts how much they can, or should spend to educate students.

“They don’t know these students. They don’t know the districts. They don’t know the needs,” Scheuermann says.

Sharpe and Smith say the adequacy number will have to be fluid enough to reflect the unique circumstances faced by different school districts.

The Joint Fiscal Office plans to hire a contractor by the middle of July. A report is due to lawmakers next January.

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