This is nuts!

Two education bills under debate seek to raise and cut education spending

WILMINGTON — Two bills that directly impact the Education Fund are moving through the Legislature - bills that, acting together, seem to cancel each other out and are therefore most troubling to me.

One is “An Act Relating to Making Miscellaneous Amendments to Education Funding Laws” (H.538), which through several strategies seeks to contain spending on education, thus also constraining increases in property taxes. Among other provisions:

• It extends eligibility for partial property tax rebates for household incomes over $90,000 by increasing the house site value from $200,000 to $250,000.

• For renters, it lowers the percentage of allowable gross rent that can be claimed for rebate from 21 percent to 19 percent.

• It lowers the maximum property-tax adjustment for everyone from $8,000 to $6,000.

• It also lowers the excess school spending penalty threshold from the current 125 percent of statewide average spending to 121 percent over two years.

The bill originally included elimination of small schools grants over four years, but there was so much pushback that this element was reduced to a study. (Yes, Virginia, lobbying from the folks back home works!)

The intended purpose of this bill was to reduce education property taxes, and the net effect of the various elements is expected to reduce property-tax revenue to the Education Fund by about a half-cent on the statewide property tax rate in fiscal year 2015.

The only way the Education Fund formula knows how to restrain property taxes is to reduce education spending or shift who pays within the fund. We are running our education system on the back of a formula, and other than the underlying assumption that the state will spend the same amount on every student, the formula doesn't care at all how well a student is educated.

This is nuts!

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The other bill that is being debated in the House is “An Act Relating to Providing Access to Publicly Funded Prekindergarten Education” (H.270), which will mandate 10 hours per week of pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds in a school or qualified child-care setting.

Substantial research shows that early childhood education not only benefits the child, who will do better in school in subsequent school years, but it also shows over the long run that education costs, especially special-education costs, are lower as a result.

Previous legislation enabled schools to begin such programs either in their own schools or by contracting with a qualified child-care provider. Several towns in our area saw the merits and did begin such programs, even though a new cost was added to education.

In fact, voters in 84 percent of Vermont towns also agreed with the better outcomes for students and were willing to spend more to achieve them.

Those costs are now baked into the overall state spending on education that H.538 seeks to contain.

What could be wrong with extending this opportunity to all children in Vermont? Until H.270, the goals of the state and of a very large percentage of towns were in alignment, demonstrating the best of how local control can work, how the partnership between the state and local school districts does move toward improving outcomes for kids.

However, H.270 no longer enables, it mandates. In the process, it adds about $1 million in education spending while, at the same time, H.538 seeks to reduce education spending.

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Another way that H.270 is troubling to me is that the control of where a child gets to spend these education tax dollars is in the hands of the parents through a voucher-like system. Why is this a problem?

The underlying framework of state equal education funding is that the state distributes money on a per-pupil basis. The other side of that coin is that schools - and, in this case, private child-care providers - receive revenue on a per-child basis and thus have a need for a certain number of students just to keep the doors open and the lights on.

For existing pre-K programs, whether in a school or a private child-care facility, the ability of the public dollars to be transported from the programs already in place puts the sustainability of those programs in question.

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We have about two weeks left of this legislative session and more controversial bills yet to consider.

Thank you to all who have shared with me your views. Your comments do help me to see all sides of an issue.

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