Vermont lawmakers to pick up education finance reform efforts this fall

Published: Jul. 22, 2021 at 3:56 PM EDT
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - Equal opportunity in education will be on the front burner for Vermont lawmakers in the coming months as they dig into the perennial issue of education finance reform.

Funding for public schools is allocated out of the State Education Fund on a per-pupil basis. The funding formula is complex and includes a “weighting” system to increase funding for students who are more expensive to teach, including students from low-income areas and English language learners.

But a 2019 University of Vermont study found the current formula is not sufficiently meeting those needs, leaving poorer districts severely underfunded. The study authors suggest multiplying the weight of students in poverty by a factor of 12.

“It’s about fair distribution of resources as opposed to increasing taxes or the tax rate overall,” said Rep. Katharine Sims, D-Orleans/Caledonia.

“The fix is very simple. The research has given us the numbers -- it’s a mathematical change to the formula. It’s politically complex though,” said Marc Schauber with the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity.

The Public Assets Institute’s Paul Cillo says changing the weighting number may not be the best approach. “When you do weights, you can’t fix the amount that goes for a student, it floats with the spending amount of that community,” he said. Cillo says districts should be given direct funding to address specific needs. “And then you don’t have the complexity of this floating number that’s depending on the spending per pupil in each district.”

But advocates for change say relying on annual allocations won’t guarantee equity in the way a revised funding formula would. “they’re subject to the whim of the politicians. They can change year to year. They don’t provide any assurance or stability to districts that they are going to have this money year after year,” Schauber said.

Lawmakers say that it isn’t about pitting districts against each other. “Equity is not a zero-sum game. Everyone in Vermont will benefit from an equal education system that ensures every kid, no matter where they are in Vermont, will have an opportunity to thrive,” Sims said.

Lawmakers will gather public testimony this fall and present a final report to the Legislature by December.

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