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Reporter Debrief: Lawmakers Consider Altering How Vt. Distributes $1.8 Billion In Education Funds

Two simplistic humanoid figures attempt to ascend a latter. The latter one on the left has many rungs for easy ascension, while the one on the right has few rungs, and thus an inequitable climb.
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Vermont spends about $1.8 billion a year on K-12 public education. A bill passed by the Senate Education Committee aims to change how the state distributes those funds to school districts, with an eye to greater equitably.

While addressing COVID-19 is a big task, Vermont lawmakers are also continuing with other legislative work amid the pandemic, including what could be the biggest overhaul to how the state funds education in a quarter century.

Critics of the state's current funding formula say it shortchanges districts from economically depressed areas of the state. Now, a bill passed by the Senate Education Committee would change how Vermont distributes money to schools.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with VPR’s capitol reporter Peter Hirschfeld to discuss the proposals in the legislature that could change Vermont’s education funding system. A transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Before we get to the bill that Senate lawmakers passed last week, give us a bit of context here. What’s the fundamental problem lawmakers are trying to address?

Peter Hirschfeld: To be clear right at the outset, this is not about how we raise money to pay for schools. It's about how we distribute the funds that property taxes are already generating for [the state's] education spending.

Vermont spends about $1.8 billion a year on K-12 public education, and that money flows to schools based on the number of students in their classrooms.

Here's the thing: there's a massive body of national research that has shown us it costs more to educate some kids than others. If you want a kid who lives in poverty to attain the same level of academic success as a kid from an upper-middle-class family, for example, you have to devote more resources and therefore spend more money in order to make that happen.

The research also tells us it costs more to educate students who are English language learners. It costs more to deliver education in very rural areas as well. And critics of the current funding formula say it does not do enough to address those realities. They say lawmakers can fix this by changing the way [the state] count students.

Under one proposal, a student from poverty, for example, would get counted as three students. This would have the effect of driving a larger share of our overall education dollars to districts with high rates of poverty.

More from VPR: Education Reformers Say Vt.'s Funding System Is 'Weighted' Against Disadvantaged Students

So, enter the Senate Education Committee, which says it has a solution. [They] unanimously approved legislation on Friday, that says [their plan] would narrow those inequities. What would the bill actually do?

Nothing in the short run, actually. But it sets up a six-person task force that would be made up of key lawmakers and administration officials who would come up with a proposal for lawmakers to act on next year.

I talked with [Democratic] Bennington Sen. Brian Campion, the chair of the Senate Education Committee. He said this problem is just too complicated to work out in the context of a legislative committee room.

“It's a massive shift, you know. And that's, I think, what my committee and others in the Senate have realized; that it would be a massive shift any year. But in a year where there's a global pandemic, it's particularly massive and there are still a lot of questions that we need to have answered.” — Sen. Brian Campion

One big question is how, exactly, these changes and people waiting would sugar off for individual districts. There are going to be winners and losers, for sure, and a lot of lawmakers want to understand precisely how this is going to affect their constituents before they commit to anything.

What about the prospects for this legislation in the House?

House lawmakers are amenable to the concept of a study committee. They're not convinced yet, though, that changing the way we count students is going to result in schools with lots of poor kids or lots of English language learners actually getting the additional resources they need to provide that equitable education.

Changing the people weights doesn't automatically mean districts get more money. What it means is that, if they keep their local property tax rates where they're at right now, those rates will generate more money for the schools.

So, if you make this change, school boards could decide to just keep school budgets where they're at right now, and give their local residents a tax cut instead. [Democratic] Calais Rep. Janet Ancel is the chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means. She's a very influential figure in this debate. And this is a real concern of hers.

“If you have a high poverty district and you adjust the weight so that the tax rate goes down, there's nothing that says that that district needs to keep their spending at that same level, or increase it.” — Rep. Janet Ancel

Ancel says the Legislature should look at other ways to address this resource gap, including possibly creating a new system of financial grants for districts with high rates of students from poverty, or districts with large number of students who are English language learners.

More from VPR: On Town Meeting Day, School Budgets Passed Easily Across The State

What about Gov. Phil Scott? You have any idea if he supports this change?

It appears that the Scott administration definitely does support some kind of change to the funding formula.

Secretary of Education Dan French, who is a Scott appointee, says the current system is not equitable as it stands right now, and that the state needs to do something to fix it. The Vermont Constitution actually requires Vermont to deliver a substantially equal education to all students, regardless of what district they happen to live in. And Dan French says the current funding system likely is not meeting that constitutional threshold.

French supports taking some time to get this right, and thinks the study committee is the right approach. But he says lawmakers are going to have to do something concrete sooner than later.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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