Vermont’s unjust school funding system

Unfair.  Inequitable. Disconnected from reality.  The system Vermont uses to provide access to K-12 public school funding is an obscene injustice hiding in plain sight.  It results in less for students with higher needs and more for students with less needs.

Is this a devious plan of people in power to hold the state’s shared education funding resources for themselves?  No.  For nearly 25 years now our state has aspired to uphold the Vermont Constitution’s promise of equal educational opportunity.  The devil that shorts our neediest kids is in the details.  The existing ‘weighting” formula has proven flawed.  It delivers inequity, not equal opportunity, to students that are rural, economically disadvantaged or New American English language learners.

Those in power can no longer turn a blind eye to this crisis in educational opportunity.  State lawmakers must act—now—to right this wrong.  COVID-19 has only made this situation worse. 

Fortunately, Vermont lawmakers have what they need to act.  The problem is well documented by a well-informed analysis.  All the operators in the system—school boards, superintendents, the teacher’s union, the Agency of Education, and the State Board of Education—acknowledge the system is broken.  A responsible fix has been introduced.

It is now a question of leadership for state lawmakers.  Those from larger and wealthier districts are resistant to the sense of urgency felt in our poorest schools.  Some suggest a “band-aid” approach that seeks to mask over the systemic favoritism.  Real leadership in this moment, though, is about actually fixing the broken system, which many of us in the Legislature are pressing to do now.

Let’s back up a little so I can explain.  Vermont’s 1997 education funding formula, Act 60, also known as the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, was created in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision that said Vermont’s existing educational funding system was unconstitutional. The court, in Brigham v. State of Vermont, concluded that the state must provide “substantially equal access” to education for all Vermont students, regardless of where they reside. And, importantly, that the state was responsible for ensuring equity.

Under Act 60, tax rates were directly tied to per pupil spending. Act 60 assured that when districts spent the same amount per pupil, residents would have identical tax rates regardless of the town’s property wealth. In other words, a key measure of student equity was and is determined by per pupil spending. The two factors used to determine per pupil spending are the total amount of spending divided by the total number of students.

Weighting of students adjusts for differences in the cost of educating different types of students. Changing the student weights has the effect of changing the overall number of students in the district. Generally, under Act 60, decreasing the number of students increases a district’s cost per pupil and tax rates. Increasing the number of students decreases a district’s cost per pupil and tax rates.

In 2018 the Legislature, concerned that the existing education funding formula was not effective in equalizing education costs, and by extension, opportunities to learn for students across the state required the Scott administration to evaluate whether the current weights for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners (ELL), and secondary-level students should be modified.

Early last year a thorough,  Pupil Weighting Factors Report was completed by educational researchers from the University of Vermont, Rutgers University, American Institutes for Research and American Institutes for Research Constitutional.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers revealed that the 20 year old existing weights are not empirically based and recommended dramatic increases in weights for students in poverty and ELL and new weights for middle school students, students in small schools and weights based on population density (rurality).

The report findings indicate that, since Act 60, Vermont has denied rural and poor students access to equitable financial resources and we have financially penalized districts that have tried to spend the resources to meet their poor and rural student’s needs. At the same time, we have incentivized larger wealthier districts to spend more on purchasing student opportunity – without tax penalty – for 20 years. That is an entire generation.

Along with a nonpartisan group of lawmakers, I have introduced legislation to fix this problem. We propose a clear plan of action.

First, freeze the excess spending penalty which adds insult to injury for underweighted districts trying to provide adequate resources for their students. This will provide time to put in place the corrected weights and help overweighted districts adjust.

Second, begin to roll the corrected weights in over three years. During that same time period, provide tax mitigation for overweighted districts as they adjust to the corrected formulas.

Also included in this plan are protections to ensure the access to resources makes its way to students.

Inaction is no longer an option. Two decades of students and taxpayers have been irreparably harmed. We must not allow this injustice to continue. Please reach out to your lawmakers and speak up for Vermont neediest students and the local taxpayers being penalized for trying to meet those student’s needs.

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