Lawmakers look to make education more equitable for Vt. students

Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 4:52 PM EST
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WINOOSKI, Vt. (WCAX) - Vermont lawmakers are considering a bill to overhaul how school districts are funded, aimed at funneling more money to poor and rural communities. Our Calvin Cutler looks at what could change.

Right now, the concept is that it costs different amounts to educate different types of students as it’s more expensive to educate a high school student than an elementary school student. But a study shows the formula for how students are weighed doesn’t reflect the real cost of education. A new bill working its way through the Legislature looks to fix that.

Khellmar Daring is a junior at Winooski High School. Growing up, he lived outside of the district’s bus route so he had to take the city bus instead. But he says others he knew weren’t so lucky to have that option.

“No transportation in terms of their parents, no transportation from the school, no transportation from the city buses: they had to walk to school,” Daring said.

Vermont’s education funding system was set up to level the playing field between rich and poor towns using a weighted formula.

“It looks at certain towns and districts and says you have a higher portion of students who are lower income or have a higher proportion of students that live in rural areas which is also a transportation issue,” said Alex Yin, a member of the Winooski School Board.

But transportation costs for students such as Daring is one factor that’s left out of the formula.

Advocates say the current weighting formula incentivizes increased spending for kids in larger, wealthier districts with the least needs and decreased spending on poorer and rural districts with the most needs.

To fix this, a UVM study recommends weighing students who experience poverty more heavily.

A new bill in the Legislature would increase the per-pupil weight of students in rural and economically distressed parts of Vermont over the next three years, aimed at leveling the playing field.

“Most Vermonters are suffering in one way or another through this pandemic. But these are our kids, and these are our most needy kids. It’s gotten worse for them,” said Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover.

If passed, wealthier districts will need to cut their budgets or raise their taxes if the Legislature shifts the weights-- up to $5 million across the board over the next three years.

But Yin stresses that it’s not about pitting districts against each other, but more so evening out the playing field so all students can have the same opportunities.

“It comes down to how do we make our funding form more equitable so that our students can all have the same type of education that they deserve in the state of Vermont,” Yin said.

House and Senate lawmakers are slated to hold a joint hearing on this next week.

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