Op - Ed

Study will provide cover for higher property taxes

By Rob Roper

Tucked away in the education bill just passed in Montpelier – the one that has everybody talking about consolidation – is $300,000 earmarked for a study. A Legislator familiar with the back-room horse-trading that goes into moving these bills into law said that this little provision was key to getting the bill passed; its absence a potential deal breaker.

So what is this study for, and why the fuss?

The study will explore putting a number on what Vermont taxpayers really need to spend in order to provide an “adequate” education – a very important term with legal implications. In a recent article by VPR, Speaker of the House Shap Smith (D- Morristown) justified the need for this study, saying, “Many people these days are asking whether the per-pupil spending average that we have is too high or too low.” Too low? Really?

The National Education Association ranks Vermont number one in the nation for per pupil spending at $21,263 (NEA Research, March 2015). The Agency of Education calculates the number differently at around $18,000. With our property taxes also some of the highest in the nation and, consequently, the number one issue on people’s minds in the last election, I don’t know of too many people who have been asking if our spending average is too low. Outside of the State House, that is. And, hence, this study…

The majority in the Legislature do not want to cut spending on public education despite a greater than 20 percent decline K-12 student population because doing so means cutting back the cash flow to a very powerful, allied political interest group in the teachers’ union. But, they also don’t want to upset voters who have reached the end of their patience with this ever-expanding tax burden. Commissioning a study accomplishes a couple of things. A) In the short term, “delay” while creating the appearance of doing something to fix the problem. “We’re digging hard to find places where we can and should be spending less.” B) In the long term, manufacturing the justification for future increases in that spending.

I will bet a very large sum that the “adequacy” number determined by this study will come in — by quiet direction from these legislators — higher than the current state per-pupil average. The reaction will be, “Oh’m’gosh, we’re not spending enough!” The chair of the House Education Committee, Rep. David Sharpe (D-Bristol), hinted at this in the VPR story, saying, “If you look at what our traditional academies are spending, what it actually costs to educate a child at St. Johnsbury Academy or Burr & Burton, I think it is close to $20,000.” That’s 11 percent higher than the $18,000 the Agency of Education says we spend on average now.  (Taxpayer funded tuition to the academies is around $16,000.)

A study producing such a higher number would justify, at least in the minds of the majority in the legislature, either doing nothing to reduce property taxes, or more likely, serve as a mandate for future increases.

Furthermore, “adequate” is a highly subjective term that, if other states are any guide, will open the door to lawsuits demanding that the state spend more to become adequate, whatever that means.  Several states that have adequacy language written into laws regarding education have been subject to court mandates that taxpayers spend more money. In Kansas, for example, Shawnee County District Court judges ruled that taxpayers be forced to spend between $548 million and $771 million a year more on schools. (Heartland, 2/5/15)

Closer to home, New Hampshire is enduring a decades long struggle between the legislature, the governor, and the state’s Supreme Court over adequate education funding that has reached the point of a constitutional amendment battle to remove the judiciary from school finance decisions.

If the courts assume the power to dictate education financing decisions in Vermont, it would take the legislature off the hook as far as responsibility for increasing property taxes. It would also obliterate what’s left of local control.

If the legislature wanted to embark on a worthwhile study, they would be looking at how the Village School of North Bennington has been able to cut their baseline spending by over 10 percent while expanding programs and services since “going independent” in 2013.  Or how the Compass School in Westminister, with 40 percent of its student population qualifying for free and reduced lunch and 30 percent identified with special learning needs, achieves a virtual 100 percent high school graduation rate with 90 percent of its graduates accepted into college — all for roughly $5,500 less than the statewide per pupil spending average.

But, they’re not going to look at that. Unfortunately, this adequacy study is wholly inadequate.

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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