Legislature must do the simple and right thing

Lawmakers must correct a massive generational injustice perpetuated on Vermont’s poor and rural students — and all property taxpayers

DOVER — Vermont's existing education funding formula, Act 60, also known as the Equal Educational Opportunity Act, was signed into law in June of 1997.

The Legislature drafted the law in response to a Vermont Supreme Court decision that said the state'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.

In 2018, the Vermont House and Senate, concerned that the existing education funding formula wasn't effective in equalizing education costs - and, by extension, opportunities to learn for students across the state - passed Act 173.

The law required the Scott administration to undertake a study to evaluate whether the current weights for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners (ELL), and secondary-level students should be modified and if new weights should be incorporated into the equalized pupil calculation.

The concept of evaluating existing student weights had been requested for years by local districts, introduced in numerous legislative sessions, repealed, and reintroduced. The controversy prompted a threatened legal enforcement action against the former secretary of education by members of the House in 2017.

Under Act 60, tax rates are directly tied to per-pupil spending: the total amount of spending divided by the total number of students.

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.

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.

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On Dec. 24, 2019, a completed Pupil Weighting Factors Report was sent to the House and Senate Committees on Education, the House Committee on Ways and Means, and the Senate Committee on Finance. This report was prepared by educational researchers from the University of Vermont, Rutgers University, and American Institutes for Research.

The researchers found little empirical evidence for Vermont's existing weights and recommended dramatic increases in weights for students in poverty and ELL and new weights for middle school students, for students in small schools, and on the basis of population density (rurality).

The report findings indicate that, since Act 60, Vermont has denied rural and poor students access to equitable financial resources, and the state has financially penalized districts that have tried to spend the resources to meet their poor and rural students' needs.

At the same time, we incentivized larger wealthier districts to spend more on purchasing student opportunity - without tax penalty - for 20 years. That is an entire generation.

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The Pupil Weighting Factors Report is comprehensive, conclusive, and clear. Vermont's Secretary of Education Dan French testified that the report shows “immediate action by the General Assembly is necessary to address a significant equity concern in the current education funding system.”

The Legislature is not debating the findings of the report we asked for. But the timeline for correcting the weights and the corresponding inequity is being debated.

This process is difficult for many legislators.

Large and wealthy districts whose students have benefited from being able to over-access state-education property-tax funds raised across all of Vermont will need to cut their budgets or raise their taxes when we correct the weights.

It is an election year, which could further constrain the courage to do what is right and correct this massive generational injustice perpetuated on Vermont's poor and rural students and all property taxpayers.

Vermont has a history of providing leadership to the nation on so many policy areas. Correcting the inequitable weights and addressing the negative effects for districts that have been able to over-access state resources is completely doable this year in our very small state's very large General Assembly.

Surely, we do not need the courts to tell us to do the simple and right thing by our students and taxpayers.

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