By William J. Mathis
Editor’s note: William J. Mathis is managing director of the National Education Policy Center and vice-chair of the Vermont State Board of Education, and a Goshen resident. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization with which he is affiliated.
It was June 26, 1997, when Governor Howard Dean signed Act 60 in the Whiting schoolyard with a young, but unimpressed, Amanda Brigham by his side. A local farmer added pungency to the event by spreading manure that morning.
The Brigham decision and the resulting Act 60 can now be considered as “settled law.” The gist of the decision and subsequent legislation is that equal educational opportunities must be available to every Vermont student. It is considered by many finance experts to be the fairest and most equitable system in the nation.
It came at a price.
Our educational history shows educational funding has been a perennial issue. Our Constitution guarantees universal education—but this was not always the reality. It was not until the 1950s, when parents no longer had to pay textbook fees, that universal free public education was, in theory, realized.
This did not, however, mean that high quality education was available to all. Some schools were compared to “pigsties” while others were quite elaborate and the pride of their towns. Not surprisingly, the finer facilities and operations were in those towns that were favored by geography, economic robustness, transportation, and wealth. The property tax was (and still is in some quarters) considered to be the dedicated resource of the local town and was not to be shared with others.
Few realized or accepted that town boundaries and tax systems were creatures of the state. In the face of centuries of tradition, the notion that towns, school districts and taxes were state-delegated powers and loaned authority was not well received.
Equality, fairness, and the Constitution, however, said we were a commonwealth. The equal protection clause of the Constitution requires fairness and equality. The quality of a child’s education cannot be a matter of whether a child was born on this side or the other side of a town line.
The Supreme Court later said it this way:
“The distribution of a resource as precious as educational opportunity may not have as its determining force the mere fortuity of a child’s residence. It requires no particular constitutional expertise to recognize the capriciousness of such a system …”
The highest spenders had the lowest taxes. In 1995, spending ranged from $2,961 per student to $7,726. Property wealth showed even more extreme disparities with the richest town having $116,805 of property wealth behind each student while the poorest had only $1,182 — almost a hundred times less.
These inequalities were well known, but the Legislature did not move. Every year, the General Assembly frittered around with funding tweaks and changed formulas several times. But as long as the system relied on local property taxes, fairness could not be achieved.
So we went to court. In a miraculous four months of litigation, a unanimous Supreme Court decision was reached. The legislature’s Ways and Means Committee, with Majority Leader Paul Cillo and Ways and Means Vice-Chair John Freidin leading, took only another four months to pass the bill. In eight months, we resolved a centuries-old problem. In legislative and school finance terms, this was warp speed.
In a time where public education-bashing is promoted by wealthy vested interest groups (many of which see that money is to be made), the magnificent successes of Vermont education are overshadowed. Depending on the year, grade and subject, we rank between first and fourth in reading and math test scores. If our test scores are compared to nations, we are tied for eighth in the world. We rank third in child well-being. This is a tremendous return on investment particularly for a small state with limited resources.
At the same time, we have to be aware that we face challenges. Our national instability echoes across our state. Resources are limited, demographics are changing, economic bifurcation harms our citizenry and our schools, the opioid crisis is real and privatization pressures threaten the concept of a commonwealth.
Yet we can and should celebrate the Brigham decision and the resulting gains in equal opportunities. At the same time we face new and growing inequities in pre-school funding, special needs, and economically disadvantaged students. These are evolving and controversial challenges. Throughout Vermont’s history we have met these challenges and must do so yet again.
Our future lies with all our children. All must be contributors to our society. Fortunately, we have success stories to guide us. Amanda Brigham now has a master’s degree, is recently married, works in higher education and has returned to Vermont.