State News

Student-teacher ratios are the focus as House Education Committee hones bill

By Amy Ash Nixon,

Attention turned to class sizes and student-staff ratios as the House Education Committee continued to fine tune its education reform bill Monday, Feb. 23.

Brad James, education finance manager for the Vermont Agency of Education, showed committee members tables detailing student-staff and administrator-student ratios in Vermont’s schools.

“We have extraordinarily low student-to-teacher ratios in Vermont,” James said.

Jeffrey Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said that Vermont is lower in administrator, staff and teacher to student ratios than any other state in the country.

A separate bill was introduced last week to require a 15:1 minimum student-teacher ratio and sets other adult-to-student ratios.

The bill would require ratios by July 1, 2018, and offer tax incentives for complying districts — and penalties for noncompliant districts. se

The bill was introduced by Reps. Kevin “Coach” Christie, D-Hartford; Alison Clarkson, D-Woodstock; Dennis Devereux, R-Mount Holly; and Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor.

Christie said the issues the committee keeps coming back to all have to do with size, and the need to increase sizes in order to both improve student learning opportunities and respond to the plea from taxpayers for cost efficiencies.

The crux of the bill the committee is pounding out revolves around working to get school districts to come together into larger integrated education systems of at least 1,000 students, and would require districts that do not move toward the model to receive a waiver from the State Board of Education. The bill also encourages districts to work with their neighbors and to explore ways to form larger school systems in their regions.

Of consolidation legislation, Christie said, “It isn’t going to be pretty, and we aren’t going to make a lot of friends… but something has to shift if we are going to help the kids.”

Christie addressed his remarks to Rebecca Holcombe, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education.

In a presentation she gave the full Legislature at the opening of the session in January, Holcombe noted that the state could save $74 million a year by shifting the present student to staff ratios from 4.67:1 to 5:1.

But Holcombe also expressed concern that imposing ratios could lead to harmful cuts.

“I would like to hear where the agency thinks we should be going in a way that actually gets something done, and we know the money is where the ratios are,” Sharpe said. “What can we do about phantom students or small schools grants that move us in the direction of larger school districts?”

“That’s where the money is,” said Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, referring to personnel costs which account for about 80 percent of education spending, multiple witnesses have testified.

The Legislature has been focusing on how to improve student learning opportunities and equity across Vermont while grappling with increasing education costs and property tax rates to pay for the state’s schools. Rising costs come with a sharp decline in student enrollments in the state’s schools the past decade, a loss of students projected to continue through at least 2030, according to projections.

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