New law corrects decades of harm by a flawed formula

DOVER — Education finance in Vermont is an often-hard-to-understand-and-quite-complex system. Act 59 of 2021 created the “Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report” and a group of eight Vermont legislators who will spend time this summer determining, as the name implies, the best path forward to implementing its recommendations.

This isn't an overhaul; this is correcting two decades of harm caused by a flawed formula.

“The major recommendations of the [2019 Pupil Weighting Factors] Report are straightforward, specifically that the General Assembly increase certain of the existing weights and that it add population density (rurality) as a new weighting factor, given the Report's finding that rural districts pay more to educate a student.”

The study from which the report was written was conducted by a team of nationally renowned researchers from the University of Vermont, Rutgers University, and American Institutes for Research.

They unequivocally concluded that the current weights, a leftover relic of the pre–Act 60 days, do not account for the cost differences in educating different students and that the existing weights “have weak ties, if any, with evidence.”

The Vermont Constitution requires we provide “equal educational opportunities” for all Vermont children. According to a June 28 document from the Joint Fiscal Office, “FY20 Weighting Study Education Spending and School Size Analysis,” 65 percent of Vermont school districts are underweight. That means 65 percent of school districts have lower taxing capacity than is necessary to adequately educate their students.

Taxing capacity is one of those concepts that's difficult to wrap your mind around. For ease of understanding, think of it this way: 65 percent of districts have been receiving less in funding from the state than it costs to provide equal educational opportunities for all Vermont children.

Over the past 20-plus years, some of those districts have increased their tax rates in order to provide for their students. Other districts haven't been able to adequately provide for their students.

The 2019 report found that the pupil weighting formula is inequitable. The task force will produce a report and write legislation that will be brought to the Legislature for action in January 2022, to correct the pupil weighting formula.

Doing so will not bring additional funds into the system. Doing so will bring the equity to the pupil weighting formula that hasn't been achieved by Acts 60 and 68.

Equity ultimately benefits everyone.

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