By Jack Hoffman
The Equal Educational Opportunity Act, better known as Act 60, is 20 years old on Monday. On June 26, 1997, at an outdoor ceremony in Whiting, Gov. Howard Dean signed into law Vermont’s unique and groundbreaking education funding system.
As we face tensions over school consolidation and who should determine teachers’ health insurance benefits, it’s worth remembering what Vermont has already achieved in school funding.
Vermont has taken a huge step toward solving a problem that still plagues other states: educational disparities between kids in wealthy communities and those in cities and towns with less wealth and fewer educational resources.
About five months before Act 60 became law, the Vermont Supreme Court had ruled the funding system in place in 1997 to be unconstitutional. At the time, Vermont, like many states, relied heavily on local property taxes to support public schools. The problem was that towns with lots of valuable property could easily raise the money with low property tax rates to educate each student in town, while poorer communities struggled with high tax rates and still couldn’t raise enough to give their kids a decent education. The Legislature provided state aid to try to even things out, but the court found it inadequate.
In Brigham v. State of Vermont, the Court said public education is a fundamental right, and the state is responsible for seeing that all schoolchildren have equal educational opportunity.
“Equal opportunity does not necessarily require precisely equal per-capita expenditures,” the Court said, “nor does it necessarily prohibit cities and towns from spending more on education if they choose, but it does not allow a system in which educational opportunity is necessarily a function of district wealth.”
Act 60 largely did away with the idea of local educational resources. Instead, it recognized that we — all of us in Vermont — have a responsibility to see that all Vermont children — not just those in our town — get a good education. For the kids, it’s a matter of fairness. They all deserve the chance to get the skills and learning they need to live happy, productive, fulfilling lives. As a practical matter, if a child in the next town grows up to be our doctor or mechanic or electrician, we want her to be at least as well educated as our own children.
Act 60, in effect, pools all of the state’s education resources in one fund, and all school districts have the same opportunity to draw on that money. Before Act 60, it was chaos — there was no correlation between tax rates and per-pupil spending. It’s now a rational system.
For resident homeowners, the level of per-pupil spending in their town determines their payment into the pool. Towns with the same education spending per pupil have the same school tax rates, and towns that spend more have proportionally higher tax rates than those that spend less.
A 2012 study of Vermont’s Act 60 funding system commissioned by the Legislature stated: “The state has designed an equitable system. We found virtually no relationship between district fiscal capacity (measured by either by district property wealth or personal income) and spending levels.”
That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. About two-thirds of Vermont resident homeowners pay an income-based school tax. However, high-income homeowners still pay property-based taxes. The system would be fairer if all Vermonters paid school taxes as a percentage of their income.
We also have an achievement gap that has its roots in poverty. As the Vermont Supreme Court said 20 years ago, “Equal opportunity does not necessarily require precisely equal per-capita expenditures.” In fact, equal educational opportunity requires additional resources for some children to ensure that they have the same chances to succeed as their peers.
Act 60 was a big step forward for Vermont kids. We now have the challenge of ensuring that all Vermont children can succeed in school.
Jack Hoffman is a senior analyst at Public Assets Institute, a non-partisan nonprofit in Montpelier. Before joining Public Assets, Hoffman was a reporter with the Vermont Press Bureau for 20 years and wrote extensively about education funding and Act 60. He attended the Act 60 signing in Whiting.