By Emerson Lynn
The House Ways and Means Committee is pushing legislation that would change the way Vermont finances education. The impetus is political. Property taxes are high, and rising. Legislators want to rush in to ease the pain.
The timing could not be worse.
What the proposal does is shift some of the burden from the property tax to the income tax. The particulars have not been solidified, so we don’t know what the rates would be, or who would be affected.
But the talking points would be clear; the change would lower what is paid in property taxes — which makes home owners/voters happy — and the difference would be made up by raising what people pay in income taxes, with the rates skewed higher for higher income tax payers.
Here is the problem: that’s not the discussion we need to have. The discussion we need to have is the one we’re in the midst of, which is the need to finish the consolidation efforts launched by Act 46 and to push toward the scale needed in our schools to make a difference educationally. We need to finish the discussion we started, which is to figure out how to produce a quality education without spending more than we spend.
This is difficult work. It’s taken us decades to get where we are, and it can’t be reversed in a matter of months. The worst thing we could do is to confuse the objectives, to take a matter of policy and turn it political.
That’s exactly what any debate over school funding would do. It tells voters that the issue is not how much we spend, or how we spend it, it’s about who pays.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Few things could damage the process more.
Rep. David Sharpe, chair of the House Education Committee, was quoted as saying: “This method of funding schools, this tax support of public schools, has lasted 20 years. That’s twice as long as any funding system I recall in history, and so it’s overdue for an overhaul.”
Really? We’re supposed to change something just because someone thinks time’s up?
Rep. Janet Ancel, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, is the one who articulated the reason behind the new finance proposal: “We’ve been hearing for years now that people feel overwhelmed by their property taxes and there’s been a lot of interest in moving to something that better reflects ability to pay. Income is a good measure of ability to pay… When we’re looking at increases this year averaging about 7 percent or the 9.4 cents people are talking about, it may be a year where, you know, the political interests of various people come together and that we’re actually able to make a change.”
When voters feel “pain” legislators respond. This was precisely the push behind Act 46. It came out of a massive sense of frustration that property taxes were too high and that what we were spending on schools was disproportionate considering the dramatic drop off in student enrollment.
What Act 46 did was to start the discussion as to how we could begin to operate our school districts differently and more efficiently. It’s one of the most difficult and important discussions we’ve had. And we’re only halfway through.
If we switch the discussion from one of policy and process to one of politics and payments, we run the risk of ruining our credibility with our schools and our communities. It’s another way of saying that the only issue is who pays, not how much and where and for what reason.
It’s hard to imagine a more damaging change in direction.
Ms. Ancel and Mr. Sharpe will respond by saying their proposal makes it clearer for voters to tie what they spend to what a school proposes; but surely they know better. The proposal is blatantly political, it seeks to assuage those who want to pay less. It’s an effort to shift the burden from one group of taxpayers to another. It does nothing to address the fundamental problem, which is to figure out how to reorient existing resources to do a better job educating fewer children.
The message, unintended or not, being sent out by Ms. Ancel and Mr. Sharpe is that the issue is property tax levels. That all else is trivial by comparison; if people can be made happy by lowering their property taxes, then the issue with our schools fades.
That can’t be allowed to happen.
Legislators need to step beyond their comfort zones and insist that the present discussion be taken to its conclusion. If there is a need to revisit how we finance our schools, so be it. The opportunities to do so will not fade anytime soon. But to have that discussion now may doom our chances to actually complete the discussion we began with Act 46, a discussion that began with a heightened concern about property tax levels.
The irony is bottomless.
Emerson Lynn is the editor and publisher of the St. Albans Messenger, a sister publication to the Mountain Times.