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Education Reformers Say Vt.'s Funding System Is 'Weighted' Against Disadvantaged Students

Legislation introduced in both the House and Senate would increase the proportion of education resources going to districts with economically disadvantaged students.
Angela Evancie
/
VPR File
Legislation introduced in both the Vermont House and Senate would increase the proportion of education resources going to districts with economically disadvantaged students.

Voters across Vermont will weigh in on local school budgets Tuesday, but a debate playing out in Montpelier right now could have far more influence over how much money districts have to educate their students.

 Lawmakers and the Scott administration are contemplating major changes to Vermont’s school funding formula. And the proposed reforms would substantially increase financial resources for poorer and more rural districts, as well as those with large numbers of students who are English language learners.

“We are at a place and time historically where we’re looking at equity,” said Jen Botzojorns, superintendent of the Kingdom East Union Unified School District, which serves eight towns in the Northeast Kingdom. “And we need to look at the services that we are providing for our children so they have an equal footing when they launch into life.”

"I believe in meritocracy, don’t get me wrong, if all the other things are level. It is not level, that's the problem." — Alex Yin, Winooski School Board

The school funding debate is over something called “pupil weighting.” Alex Yin, a member of the Winooski School District Board, said the outcome of that debate could alter the trajectory of Vermont’s future.

“If we believe in a democracy in this state … you need an educated citizenship,” Yin said. “That’s what we’re fundamentally fighting for here, you know? It’s really the Vermont now and the Vermont for the future.

The “fight” Yin’s talking about involves a fundamental rethinking of how Vermont distributes financial resources to Vermont schools.

At the heart of the debate, according to Secretary of Education Dan French, lies a simple premise:

“Different types of students cost more to educate,” French told Senate lawmakers recently.

The problem, according to Yin and other education officials, is that Vermont’s current funding formula doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that reality.

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Winooski for instance, which serves a large population of young people who moved to Vermont from other countries, has more than 300 English language learners in kindergarten through 12th grade. Collectively, they speak 18 different languages.

“If you go into a different country, it’s not like I pick up the language right away. You actually need the additional support to learn — that’s why we have foreign language classes,” Yin said. “And it’s not an intelligence issue: They know three other languages. They just don’t know English, right? And so you’ve got to provide that support.”

"We are at a place and time historically where we're looking at equity." — Jen Botzojorns, Kingdom East Union Unified School District superintendent

Legislation introduced in both the House and Senate would effectively change the way the education fund gets sliced in Vermont, and give bigger pieces to districts that have a large percentage of English language learners.

The legislation gives new weight to other factors as well, including school size, the rurality of the district, and the age of the students it educates.

But by far the biggest proposed change, and the one that would have largest effect on resource distribution, involves students who come from poverty.

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“Nationally, there’s a great body of research that says that students in poverty come to school with very different learning needs,” said University of Vermont professor Tammy Kolbe.

Kolbe co-authored a 2019 study that inspired the pupil weighting legislation, and says kids from poverty are more likely to come to school with trauma and other mental health issues. And the districts called upon to educate those students incur expenses that wealthier districts don’t.

“We have districts and schools in this state who have washing machines in their schools, because students don’t have access to laundry facilities in their homes,” Kolbe said.

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Many education officials say the contrast between rich districts and poor districts is getting starker.

Alison Notte, who’s served on the board of commissioners in the Rutland School District for seven years, said about 95% of the community’s kingerdarten-through-8th grade students live in poverty.

Notte said Rutland’s capacity to serve those students has been strained by a funding formula that doesn’t adequately consider the higher costs involved.

“It costs a lot less to educate a student that has much less needs than a student that has more significant needs, so if you can’t provide resources to meet the needs, you’re not providing equitable education,” Notte said.

That issue of equity isn’t just a moral question; it carries enormous legal consequences as well.

The Vermont Constitution requires the state to ensure an equal educational opportunity to all students, regardless of what district they happen to be enrolled in.

Dover Rep. Laura Sibilia said that under the current pupil-weighting system, which has been in place for nearly 25 years now, Vermont has abrogated that constitutional duty.

“And I believe that we have been abrogating that duty for quite some time, and that two decades worth of students have been harmed,” Sibilia said.

"It costs a lot less to educate a student that has much less needs than a student that has more significant needs, so if you can't provide resources to meet the needs, you're not providing equitable education." — Alison Notte, Rutland City Public Schools Board of Commissioners

Secretary of Education Dan French told lawmakers recently that he, too, believes Vermont’s school funding system is on shaky constitutional footing. And he said if lawmakers don’t voluntarily adjust pupil weights to account for the real cost of educating different students, then courts will likely force them to.

French, however, said lawmakers should proceed carefully. He’s encouraged the Senate to create a special commission to develop a new school funding formula. He said lawmakers should postpone implementation until Vermont has a better sense of how the pandemic has affected operations and finances for districts.

“Rapidly introducing a recalibration of the weighting system simultaneously in the middle of a pandemic with all these other variables of cost and revenue being up for redefinition, and very dynamically so, I think would be irresponsible,” French said.

He warned lawmakers that the exercise will also be politically charged, because while districts with disproportionately high rates of poverty or English language learners stand to gain resources, others districts will lose.

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Legislation in the House contemplates a scenario in which wealthier districts could have to raise local property tax rates by more than 20% in order to generate the same amount of money they’re getting right now.

Lawmakers are looking for ways to soften that blow. But Orange County Sen. Mark MacDonald foresees resistance ahead.

“They’re not going to want to give up the funds that they have to spend on their school districts which are desirable and people want to go to and get high test scores,” MacDonald said.

Winooski school board member Alex Yin said students in his district deserve the same shot.

“When I watch the students, we have great successes, but I also know that those are the exception and not the norm,” Yin said. “I believe in meritocracy, don’t get me wrong, if all the other things are level. It is not level, that’s the problem.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld @PeteHirschfeld.

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