By Paul A. Cillo
The Legislature can work with local communities to improve education or it can push them around. That’s the choice at the heart of the education debate in Montpelier this year. But so far lawmakers are not showing much interest in cooperation.
Instead, they are moving ahead with schemes to impose spending controls, consolidate school governance, and eliminate local school boards. Mistrusting the judgment of school boards and local voters, legislators are treating the citizens, who also elected them, as if they needed a firm hand. The only question on the table seems to be how firm that hand should be.
The Legislature’s attitude toward local school districts has changed dramatically since 1997, when the Supreme Court’s Brigham Decision required that all Vermont children have access to substantially equal educational resources. The Legislature had two options to comply with the Court: embrace local control or reject it. Lawmakers chose to embrace and strengthen local control over school funding.
Act 60 and later Act 68 put in place a statewide system that eliminated town-to-town funding inequities by giving all districts the same ability to raise revenue for their children’s education. The Legislature decides how much General Fund revenue to put in the statewide Education Fund. At the same time, school districts retain the authority to decide how much to spend and how much residents will pay in school taxes.
School districts that spend more per pupil pay proportionally higher homestead tax rates—both property and income rates—than their lower-spending neighbors. Spend more per pupil, pay more. Spend less, pay less. This isn’t an incentive or a disincentive to spend. It’s a consequence. School districts decide how to balance their children’s needs with an acceptable level of taxation.
The system is designed to treat school boards and school district voters as adults. It contains no carrot, no stick, no incentives, no manipulation—just consequences.
Unfortunately, over the years, the Legislature has added complications to Vermont’s education funding system that make it more difficult for local voters to understand the tax consequences of their budget decisions. Simplifying the system and stripping away many of the tweaks and adjustments would be a service to local voters.
And the Legislature has sent mixed signals. It reduced the share of General Fund support for education, which shifted more of the cost onto property taxes, but then blamed local school boards for the rise in property taxes.
In 2014, when voters in 34 school districts voted down their school budgets and demanded lowered spending, the Legislature read that as evidence the system was broken and redoubled its efforts to restructure school governance. In fact, the defeat of those school budgets—a little more than 10 percent of the budgets up for a vote—was evidence that local control works.
Meanwhile, fiscal pressure on the Legislature is building from several directions including reduced federal funding and growing health care costs, so school spending, which is a little more than a quarter of all state spending, has become a target for cuts. Cost-cutting measures like closing schools and laying off teachers are more likely if Vermont’s schools are overseen by fewer regional school boards, which would be more remote from local communities and removed from local sensibilities.
The fallout would go beyond the towns and their schools, however. Local boards give communities real ownership of their schools. And putting citizens in important governance roles helps them develop expertise and leadership, which they can use to serve on corporate or nonprofit boards, in the Legislature, or statewide office.
Policy makers should be looking to bring public education closer to citizens, not move it farther away. Montpelier should recommit to local control rather than undermine it. The Legislature should listen to the real issues school districts are facing and work with them as partners, not unruly children.
Cooperation between state lawmakers and local leaders and voters holds the greatest promise for ensuring the equal educational opportunity for all our kids that Act 60 envisioned.
Paul A. Cillo is the President of Public Assets Institute, a non-partisan nonprofit in Montpelier (publicassets.org). He served in the Legislature for ten years and was an author of Act 60. He lives in Hardwick.