By Rep. Emilie Kornheiser
Editor’s Note: Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, is vice chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, co-chair of the task force on the implementation of the pupil weighting factors report, and a state legislator since 2019.
Vermont’s commitment to equitable access to education is enshrined in our constitution, which established the “instruction of youth” as a fundamental right.
In 1997, our commitment to that constitutional standard was challenged in a landmark lawsuit, Brigham v. State. In its ruling, the Vermont Supreme Court found that the state’s education finance system, “with its substantial dependence on local property taxes and resultant wide disparities in revenues available to local school districts,” was unconstitutional.
Since then, the Legislature has responded by passing several sweeping reform bills — most notably Act 60 of 1997 and Act 68 of 2003. Taken together, these bills maintained our state’s longstanding tradition of local control over school budgets, while setting up a far more equitable tax-rate system.
The goal of the new system was clear: Any two towns with the same per-pupil spending amount — regardless of each community’s overall property wealth — will have the same tax rate. And by collecting property tax and other revenues into a statewide education fund, we affirmed that all of us are collectively responsible for educating Vermont’s children. It is a shared rather than a town-by-town commitment.
Vermont’s education finance system is notoriously complex because we’re balancing two goals simultaneously— local control and equity. One of the built-in equity mechanisms, carried over from our previous (pre-Act 60) funding formula, is “weighting,” which adjusts for the varying costs of educating different categories of students. The weights acknowledge that it’s more expensive, for example, to educate high school students or children who are living in poverty.
In 2019, a peer-reviewed study led by UVM researchers concluded that Vermont’s weights are outdated, sounding another clarion call for equity.
For the past several months, a task force established by the Legislature has been examining that problem and working toward a proposed solution. While it’s not easy work, it’s important — and it will require a shared solution.
To find this solution, it’s key to remember the remarkable progress we’ve made since Brigham. In recent testimony before the task force, Deb Brighton, commissioner of the Vermont tax structure commission, showed two graphs that made a striking point: In 1994, some towns could raise almost 50% more, per pupil, per penny on the property tax rate — shown as a startling spike on the graph. By fiscal year 2022, the graph was almost perfectly level, showing very similar amounts raised, town by town, per penny rate.
In the 2019 UVM study, a key recommendation is that we increase the poverty weight. Simply put, districts that have more students from economically disadvantaged households will gain more taxing capacity — voters could spend more on education without seeing a tax-rate increase, for example. Conversely, other districts could see a decrease in taxing capacity — in order to spend at the same levels, they’ll need to adopt a higher tax rate.
Regardless, we will all still be operating in the same progressive tax system, where budgets are decided at the district level by voters and revenues are raised across the state for the education of all of our children.
By early December, our task force must recommend an action plan and proposed legislation to address the findings of the UVM study. Yes, I said legislation: Whatever solution we settle on will, by necessity, be a political one, hashed out and voted on by House and Senate committees during the 2022 session.
That’s why it’s absolutely vital that we approach this challenge with an “all of us” mindset. We don’t need to draw battle lines or pit schools and taxpayers against each other. Instead, we need to remember that in Vermont, it’s about all of us.
In the coming months, we have an opportunity to deepen Vermont’s commitment to educational equity. As we do so, we’ll explore every idea, rely on trusted data, and stay centered on the experience of students and educators in every corner of the state.