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Reporter debrief: Lawmakers release recommendations to overhaul public school funding

An illustration shows someone standing on a large pile of books peering down at someone else on the ground.
Nuthawut Somsuk
Last week, state lawmakers released recommendations to overhaul the system funding Vermont public schools.

Over the past few months, a group of lawmakers has been working on a plan to overhaul Vermont’s education finance system. On Wednesday, the group unveiled recommendations that would dramatically change the way education funds are distributed to schools across the state.

VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld has been following the process, and he spoke with Liam Elder-Connors to explain what these recommendations would do, and why so many education officials are calling for changes.

Liam Elder-Connors: Pete, before we get into the proposals, why are lawmakers considering changes in the first place?

Peter Hirschfeld: So at the heart of this whole discussion, Liam, is this truth that's been borne out by research and science that shows that the cost of educating a student differs from kid to kid. A child from a wealthy family who's had access to top-notch early childhood education and expensive tutors, say, doesn't need as much guidance and intervention from their public school teachers to get good grades.

As for kids from poverty who's experienced trauma, there have been long standing concerns about whether or not Vermont's education funding system acknowledges those differences in costs. And in 2019, researchers at University of Vermont and Rutgers University published a study that found really strong evidence that the amount of money schools get for kids in poverty, for example, or kids who are English language learners, doesn't come close to what it actually costs to attain solid educational outcomes for those children.

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

And there's broad consensus at this point in both the political and educational universes in Vermont that this is a problem that needs to be solved, but it's a complex undertaking. And so this eight-member legislative task force has spent the summer and fall trying to put together a proposal for lawmakers to consider in the upcoming legislative session.

This 78-page report that came out Dec. 8 contains two options for addressing the equity issues you just walked us through. What would those options do and how are they different?

This panel says lawmakers can consider two approaches to fixing this issue of funding and equity. The first option would change the state's funding formula. And specifically, it would change the way we count student enrollment in a given school. Kids from poverty, for example, would count as more than a student who wasn't from poverty. And this approach is called pupil weighting. It would also change how we weight kids from rural areas or kids in small schools because they cost more to educate too. And all this matters because student enrollment, which is the thing that weighting affects, is a key variable in determining how much money a school gets from the Vermont Education Fund. And by changing pupil weights, you change student counts. And by changing the student count, you increase the school's overall enrollment. When you increase that enrollment, a school district can keep its local tax rate the same, but generate significantly more revenue for its schools.

Then the other option — this is option Number Two — takes a different approach. Instead of changing that funding formula, it would provide direct cash payments to schools for every student from poverty, every student who lives in a sparsely populated area — any of these demographic cohorts that cost more to educate. These are called "cost equity payments" in this proposal. And once those cost equity payments are distributed, the rest of the education fund would be split evenly based on student counts at different schools.

Pete, this issue of funding equity has gained a lot of traction over the past year, due in part to a coalition of school board members and school administrators that have been calling for changes. How is that coalition responding to these two proposals?

Well, that coalition you mentioned is called the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity. It now includes about two dozen school districts that have signed on. And they are adamant, to a person in that coalition, that lawmakers need to fix this problem by changing the pupil weights. They say incorporating those changes into the structure of the education funding formula itself is the only way to sustain the utility of those changes. When the cost of educating different students is built into that formula, they say the funds will still be distributed proportionally 10 years from now, 20 years from now.

And they say the problem with direct cash payments is that those payments won't necessarily keep pace with growth in the education fund. And we could find ourselves a decade from now in the same situation of inequitable distribution of resources that lawmakers are trying to fix right now.

Well, Pete, school funding tends to be a complex and controversial subject in Montpelier. So how likely is it that the legislature will actually act on these proposals during the upcoming session?

Well, one thing this proposal has going for it is a sense of urgency. A growing number of lawmakers say they're becoming more aware of the harms that are befalling low-income districts as a result of the current funding formula. Also, there's the very real threat of a lawsuit on the basis of the current funding formula because there are plenty of legal experts who say that it violates students' constitutional right to a "substantially equal access to quality education," which is guaranteed in Vermont's constitution.

But whichever proposal lawmakers go with, it's going to have some really complicating side effects. There are going to be winners and there are going to be losers when it comes to school districts. And there are real concerns about the effect of re-allocating resources in a way that reduces taxing capacity, or reduces the amount of money that some districts are going to get. There's momentum to do something but also some potential headwinds.

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

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