On March 17, 2021

Equity can’t wait

Editor’s note: this commentary was signed by Alison Notte from Rutland City Public Schools along with 30 other  school board members from around the state. 

Our Vermont legislators recently commissioned a state-of-the-art study to investigate how best to apportion funds to schools equitably.  Unfortunately for the students of Vermont, it detailed serious inequities in school funding.  What this study unveiled was an outdated distribution of funds to its districts. For 20 years the tax structure in Vermont has skewed away from fully supporting our most vulnerable students and families. Nearly 60% of Vermont schools have had their equalized students undercounted, some by more than 20%.  This has led to higher tax rates and fewer resources for these schools. This has left lasting scars on our kids, and the deepest scars are in the poorest school districts.

The UVM-based Pupil Weighting Factors Report commissioned by the Legislature provides mathematical and scientific evidence that many Vermont schools have been deprived of the resources they need to educate their children who need the most. We believe our legislative leadership needs to act immediately to correct this inequity.

There is unanimous agreement that the work of UVM Professor Dr. Tammy Kolbe and her research team has accurately described the inequity. On January 22, former Senate Committee on Education Chair Phil Baruth agreed that Vermont’s less affluent and rural districts have been “underfunded substantially for decades.” Recognizing this last year, his committee passed a bill calling for immediate action to treat this massive wound to our children.

Speaking to the issue of the inequities defined in the study, Secretary of Education Dan French stated recently that the current pupil weights “likely …  were developed outside of any empirical evaluation. The study has described new weights that are grounded in solid empirical modeling. We should endeavor to utilize a weighting system that is based on defensible, mathematical analysis.”

In a response to comments in the House Education Committee characterizing pupil weighting as “a thread … a sliver” among the complex issues of education funding, Dr. Kolbe pointed out that pupil weights are the only part of the funding system that addresses the demands of the Brigham Decision for taxpayer equity.  “We are not adjusting for differences in cost across districts,” she stated.  Using the current non-empirical weights clearly violates the letter of the Brigham Decision and the values of Vermonters.

There is concern that correcting pupil weights in this dynamic Covid-19 legislative session could create significant instability in the funding of our education system. On the other hand, a time when we are receiving unprecedented resources from the federal government that will continue for the coming year seems like a good moment to change this specific aspect of the funding system. It is easier to imagine instability in a year or two, when the fiscal flexibility currently enjoyed by districts due to federal Covid-19 relief and recovery grants is gone. Our funding system, while difficult to understand, is admired across the nation as an effective method of resolving the complex issues around supporting public education.

Some Vermonters say, “Why merely tinker with our current ed funding formula?” Although there is a new report and renewed effort to change school funding from a property tax base to an income base, that work has been politically obstructed for decades. The underlying array of forces in opposition remains in place and is likely to delay progress on a major overhaul. Is it fair to let our most under-funded schools continue to decay and our rural and poor children continue to fall behind their more affluent peers while legislators undertake a massive restructuring of the whole system? Which is more destabilizing?

We know the Agency of Education and the Joint Fiscal Office have talented staff with the experience to re-write the formulas in a very short time. Professor Kolbe’s report includes sound models for fixing this problem, and she has offered support. This implementation is not complicated. By not openly exploring the requirements of implementation, leaders of the Legislature and Secretary French cannot really know what it would take.

We are cautioned that there will be pushback from districts whose tax rates have been lower for decades due to the inaccurate weights we have been using. Is this reason enough to keep us from righting a wrong?  Equity should be a shared goal for all Vermonters. Our children deserve equal educational opportunities no matter where they live.

The additional resources that will be made available to struggling districts by correcting the inequities of the current weighting system should be directed to the populations they are intended to support. Vermont has quality standards that can be used to assure this. These resources can be used to assure adequate support for the transition to a block grant-based funding system for special education — providing the resources and training to enable our teachers and staff to develop a system to support children at all levels, as well as to provide effective behavior interventions.

Thank you for your attention. Please contact your senators and representatives and urge them to get a revised and equitable pupil weighting system implemented this year.

Signed,

 Alison Notte-Rutland City Public Schools; Dan MacArthur, Marlboro School District; Jean Waltz, Burlington School District, Central Commissioner; Marc Schauber, River Valleys Unified School District; Douglas Korb, Marlboro School District; Katharine Ingram, Orleans Southwest Union Elementary School District; David Schoales, Windham SE School District; Kristy Corey, TVUUSD; Christy Betit, TVUUSD; Liz Adams, Windham SE School District; Cathy Solsaa, Rutland City Public Schools; Anne Beekman, Windham SE School District; Jeremy Kirk, Marlboro School District; Celena Romo, Marlboro School District; Alex Yin, Winooski School District; Tim Maciel, Windham SE School District; Thomas Nolan, Windham SE School Distrfict; Kendra Sowers, Burlington School District; Kathy Olwell, Burlington District School, East Commissioner, Judith Robinson, Marlboro School District; David M. Clark,  Bellows Falls Union H.S. Board; Cheryl Charles, Ph.D., Westminster-Athens-Grafton Board and Windham Northeast Supervisory Union Board; Katharine Ingram, Orleans Southwest Union Elementary School District; Michelle Green, Windham SE Schools District; Mike Fisher, Martine Gulick, Clare Wool (Chair), Stephen Carey, Polly Vanderputten, Monika Invancic, Burlington School District. All school board members are writing as individuals, districts listed for identification only. 

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