We need to rethink the way we pay for schools

For our current education funding system to work, we would need conditions that don’t exist and never will

WEST DOVER — It's the holiday season, and for many, it's a time of year filled with traditions among families and communities.

In Vermont we also have a unique tradition that kicks off the month of December: the annual receipt of the Vermont's Tax Commissioner's statutorily required letter to the legislature regarding anticipated property-tax rates.

This event, while not anticipated with as much fondness as other time-honored religious and secular conventions, is a predictable, if not pleasant, opening salvo in the annual education-property-tax public debate.

This year, Vermonters are possibly facing a $0.09 increase per $100 of equalized education property value.

In addition to cumulative expected increases across the state in education spending, tax rates will reflect the effects of the Act 46 incentives (which will be even higher next year) and the effects of the compromise position reached last year regarding the governor's proposal to move teachers' health-care negotiations to the state level, which resulted in a budget veto.

Rather then shutting down government or seizing the unique opportunity for parity and accountability and the future ability to fairly manage health-care costs, the Legislature and administration agreed to use reserves and stabilization funds for a one-year tax reduction.

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The angst and anger resulting from this projected increase is understandable and predictable. But it's really not enough to simply continue to be outraged by the property tax.

It's important to dig in and understand how this situation is happening. It's not simple. And it's no longer acceptable to beg off being part of the solution because it's “too complicated.” There are great resources from the state Agency of Education and the Department of Taxes and from the Vermont School Boards Association that explain the mechanics of education finance.

For added perspective, it's important to also acknowledge that we have a major demographic crisis underway in much of Vermont in terms of declining workforce population which also manifests as declining student population.

This crisis is creating a huge stress on our employers, our municipalities, and our communities all across the state. The effects of this crisis are easiest to see in rural Vermont, and we must also shine a light on the myth that equity exists for Vermont's students and taxpayers.

We have a state-mandated education-finance system for which no single entity is responsible for students or accountable to taxpayers, one that cannot scale equitably, resulting in taxes going up statewide and an education structure teetering on the edge of violating Brigham vs. State of Vermont - the state Supreme Court decision that prohibited education funding by local property taxes - when it comes to student opportunity.

On top of all this, our entire education governance system is in the midst of complete reorganization, also through Act 46.

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For decades, lawmakers and both Democratic and Republican administrations have allowed themselves to believe that equal per-pupil spending is an appropriate measure of equity of opportunity.

Think about that. Our laws and funding mechanisms are constructed to strongly encourage a classroom of 10 students to spend the same per pupil as a classroom of 20 students. Not the same per classroom - the same per pupil.

Believe it or not, just about every year, the Legislature, with urging from whoever the Vermont Governor is that year, undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.” It has almost always revolved around creating downward pressure on per-pupil spending.

The problem is this: we simply are not able to equally apportion all Vermont's students into equally-sized schools. And so in almost every other year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, and that frequently cause the most upheaval in Vermont's most rural districts.

The “tragedy of the commons” describes a situation where “a shared-resource system with individual users acting independently according to their own self-interest behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action,” as defined by Wikipedia.

The shared resource at play in this situation is the statewide education property tax.

The notion that that resource is controlled locally and a district's budget decisions impact only that single district's voters is a fallacy. Every budget vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.

For example, business and nonresident education property-tax rates have nothing to do with local budget decisions happening in their communities.

And while Vermont residents have the ability to control much of their local district's per-pupil spending, they do not control all of the factors that determine their local-education property-tax rates.

We have a statewide education/accountability/tax problem that cannot be solved locally.

The reason for the continued inability for any single district, lawmaker, governor, or taxpayer to be able to deal with this tax increase is the current education finance mechanism, which relies on all Vermont property-tax payers to support hundreds of individual local decisions.

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There is no single-year, silver bullet that fixes this problem without harming kids, despite the annual cries to simply wave a magic wand at the state level and adjust student-to-staff ratios or mandate the lowering of per-pupil spending.

For any solution to be effective - and, more importantly, constitutional - we'd have to have evenly distributed population, evenly distributed property wealth, evenly spaced school buildings. We would need equitable access to telecommunications, equitable access to public transportation, equitable access to school choice. And flat roads.

We do not have those conditions, and we never will. But our current education-funding mechanism presumes most of those conditions exist. And while the current funding mechanism serves large centers of populations for students and voters, it is not serving rural Vermont students, and it definitely is not providing Vermont taxpayers with a transparent means of understanding the return they are getting on their significant investment.

We need a new education financing mechanism - one that is able to provide statewide accountability for all of Vermont's students and all of Vermont's taxpayers.

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