On June 16, 2021

Student weighting is more complicated than it seems

By Jack Hoffman

Many legislators and school officials are eager to adjust Vermont’s education finance system to provide more money for school districts with kids from low-income families and those for whom English is not their first language. We agree these resources are necessary and should be provided as soon as possible. But the Legislature was right to set up a special legislative task force this session to research and discuss with Vermont parents and voters the options for providing additional funding to these school districts. 

Here’s why: The proposed changes are an extreme use of weights, and made more so by Vermont’s funding system.  

Student weighting is just what the term suggests: Certain students who cost more to educate are counted as more than one person—given more weight—as a means to provide the additional funding to their school district.

Not all states use weights in their funding systems, but many do. Vermont adds weight for students in poverty and English language learners and applies different weights to pre-kindergarten, elementary, and high school students. Weights for poverty in other states generally fall between .05 and .50. (The highest, Maryland, adds .97.)

Vermont currently adds .25, but the Legislature’s consultants proposed weights that would add about 3.0 students for each poverty student. That’s three times the highest weight currently used in the country—12 times Vermont’s current weight. And the effect would be compounded because of Vermont’s unique school funding system. 

In most states, education funding is a mix of local property taxes and “state aid” — money distributed from general state revenues to reduce disparities between property-rich and property-poor communities. Weighting in these states typically applies to the state’s portion — not all of a district’s spending per pupil. 

Vermont doesn’t use this local funding and state aid model any more. Instead, all money comes from one big pot, the Education Fund, and all of those funds are state funds. The weights, therefore, for each weighted student apply to the full voted per-pupil spending amount in each district, not just a fraction of that spending. And since voted spending varies across the state, districts with higher per-pupil spending would get a proportionally larger allocation for each student in poverty. It’s difficult to see any rationale for such a policy.

Weighting, by definition, distorts school funding systems: it gives more emphasis to certain things to redirect education resources. Smaller weights create smaller distortions. Weighting at the proposed levels creates significant distortions that can be avoided with alternative funding distribution mechanisms. 

The proposed weights would make an already complex system more complex. 

The Vermont Tax Structure Commission recently referred to the “baffling complexity” of the current education tax system. Adopting the weighting changes and the underlying education cost statistical analysis would make that system even more impenetrable.

Transparency is critical to public support for public education, and that means legislators, policy makers, and school officials will have to describe the weighting system in terms we can all understand. There is broad agreement that Vermont’s current weights, especially for students in poverty, don’t reflect the additional costs of meeting their educational needs. But policy makers will have to explain to parents and voters why Vermont’s poverty weight should jump from 0.25 to 3.0 and why school districts will have so many more or fewer pupils than they actually have. Any proposed change should not make the system that is already too complex, even more complicated for people to understand. 

Weighting primarily affects homeowners. Vermont’s homestead school tax rates are determined by per-pupil spending. Non-homestead property — businesses, second homes, and undeveloped land — are taxed at a flat rate set each year by the Legislature. Weighting, therefore, would directly affect only homeowners, and adopting new weights, assuming all else remained the same, would increase homestead tax rates in towns with fewer weighted students and decrease rates in towns with more weighted students. Direct appropriations could be done in a way that spreads the cost across the entire school tax base.

Vermont currently provides targeted funding for transportation, special education, small schools, and school construction, and many other states provide fixed amount grants for low-income students. The consultants focused on weighting because that was what the Legislature requested. They calculated the cost of improving educational outcomes in reading and math for students in poverty, English language learners, and students in small and isolated schools, but there is no detail on what caused the cost differences. What do schools achieving better outcomes spend their additional resources on? And how might those costs be paid for directly rather than adjusting student counts?

Changing student weights may seems like a simple adjustment, but this proposal has dramatic implications for Vermonters. Policy makers need to understand these implications before moving ahead. As the task force reviews current and proposed weights, it also should look at equally well researched alternatives for delivering the needed funding to school districts. They might find alternatives that not only do a better job of distributing the funds but also are easier to explain to parents and voters, who ultimately have to decide how much to spend on their schools.

Jack Hoffman is senior analyst at Public Assets Institute (publicassets.org), a non-partisan, non-profit organization based in Montpelier.

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