Op - Ed, Opinion

Act 127 and the goal of equity

By Brooke Olsen-Farrell

Editor’s note: Brooke Olsen-Farrell is the superintendent of the Slate Valley School District.

I am proud to serve in a state that believes it is every child’s right to receive an excellent education, regardless of their background or zip code. So, it’s been unsettling to see some using Act 127, an act meant to promote equity in our educational funding formula, as a scapegoat for school budgetary pressures that all districts are dealing with. It is hard to understand how one can support the goals of equity while also advocating for the undoing of Act 127. These are contradictory positions.

Let’s be clear: Act 127 was a necessary step to bridge the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots.” In Vermont, every child is important and deserves equal educational opportunities. However, this was not being practiced in our education funding before Act 127, as wealthy towns with ample resources were better positioned to provide their children with a better education than high-poverty, rural and more diverse districts. For example, our district, Slate Valley, has always been fiscally conservative. Our practice has been zero-based budgeting. We start each year by looking at precisely what we will need to accomplish our goals for the coming year. We budget without building in contingencies. Year after year, we return most of our prior year surplus to our taxpayers to reduce tax rates. At this time, our capital reserve account has been depleted, and we do not have any other reserve accounts. Despite this conservative approach, our budget often does not pass on the first vote, and if it does pass it is by a very slim margin. 

Act 127 addresses this challenge by offering a data-driven solution to decades of underfunding of schools in Vermont’s most diverse, rural and high-poverty communities. Based on the most recent Title I poverty rate comparison data provided by the Agency of Education, Slate Valley is ranked as having the fifth highest student poverty in the state. There has been a sharp increase in student poverty within Slate Valley over the last six years. Act 127 was designed to help districts like Slate Valley deal with the increased need for services for our disadvantaged students. It aligns with our constitutional commitment to provide a high-quality education to every child in Vermont, regardless of their zip code.
Our school districts are facing unprecedented financial challenges this year. But Act 127 was not the genesis of these challenges. Instead, it emerged as a clear response to the urgent need for a more just school funding system—a funding system which, up until then, rewarded wealthier communities with better schools. Addressing the very real and critical budgetary pressures on school districts should not include undoing progress and moving backwards on equity. There are districts that will likely continue to pass their budgets despite large increases in tax rates, while districts like ours, who were supposed to be advantaged, may end up with less resources than we have this school year; further increasing the inequities in the public education system.

It’s imperative to acknowledge that many issues driving up school budgets were at play long before Act 127. Factors such as increasing health insurance expenses, staffing shortages, unfunded legislative mandates, facility maintenance burdens and the complexities of special education funding have continually strained the financial resources of schools.

Act 127 represents a significant step forward in building a fairer and more equitable education system in Vermont. It acknowledges the historical disparities in education funding and seeks to rectify them. We should not move backwards. By keeping our focus on the best interests of our children and families, we can work together to ensure that Act 127 serves as a positive force for change in Vermont’s education landscape.

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