School funding scheme offers confusion, uncertainty, and empty promises

The House Ways and Means Committee’s proposal for education funding will protect school districts that have had more than their fair share for decades and have been leaving the rest of us, with lots of kids in crisis, to make do with less

BRATTLEBORO — It appears the lure of the Ring of Power under the golden dome in Montpeculiar has captured Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser. The white-hot prospect of inheriting the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee seems to have blinded Rep. Kornheiser and consumed the integrity she brought with her to the State House.

Rep. Kornheiser is now carrying the water for retiring chair Janel Ancel and the Ways and Means Committee (and in the process making Republican school choice/private school voucher advocates very grateful) by trying to resuscitate a proposal for restructuring the education funding system in Vermont that has already been rejected in the Senate.

They are using the recently revealed gross inequities in the pupil weighting system to justify an entirely new funding system that will deeply damage students in her own district, while protecting districts that have been overfunded for 25 years of inequity.

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In 1997, the state Supreme Court decided Vermonters were not funding our schools equitably. In the Brigham decision, the court ordered the Legislature to change the funding structure so the educational resources and opportunities your child receives would no longer be determined by where you live.

The Legislature responded quickly and created our current equitable formula for school funding. Although it does lead to lots of confusion when taxpayers try to understand how it works, it has proven to be a solid system and one of the most successful school funding formulas in the nation. It is complicated and needs a tuneup, but it ain't broke.

In the process of creating this current funding formula, legislators made some best-guess estimates for how to weight the differing cost of educating various categories of students: high school students, less-affluent children, students who are not native English speakers, students from a small, rural community.

It has become clear those guesses were way off, and there is no disagreement that this has to be corrected quickly.

The Legislature acknowledged significant equity issues across districts and contracted researchers from the University of Vermont and Rutgers University to do a study of pupil weighting. The result was a highly regarded detailed report identifying the scope of the inequities in our system and exposing the 25-year practice of over-supporting wealthy districts and underfunding rural and less-affluent districts.

Last year, the legislature created the Weighting Study Task Force to meet over the summer and fall and deliver a report on how to implement the findings of the UVM Pupil Weighting Study.

That Task Force went off script and developed its own funding system. Its members basically reversed the discredited and inequitable Foundation Formula from decades past.

Fortunately, the Vermont Senate recognized this mistake and corrected it in a bill this year (S.287).

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The proposal that Rep. Kornheiser and her committee are now promoting in the Ways and Means Committee is the system that protects the districts that have been receiving this windfall for a quarter century while making it more expensive for districts like ours to figure out how to pay for the staff - the teachers, mental health workers, social workers, and English Language learners - that we need.

They are protecting districts that have had more than their fair share for decades and have been leaving the rest of us, with lots of kids in crisis, to make do with less.

In the words of our school district business manager on March 30, “if the bill passes as recommended by the [Task Force report on Dec. 17, 2021], then, per their own analysis, our school property tax rates would increase substantially!”

He said the report shows an 8.9 percent increase in school property taxes for the WSESD, “if the flawed [federal Free and Reduced Price School Lunch] eligibility statistic is used.”

“This is a very unfavorable impact that would severely undermine our public education system for years to come,” he said, recommending that the Legislature continue to use the “direct certification” statistics or an equivalent statistic “to determine poverty weights and avoid the voluntarily/randomly reported free & reduced lunch eligibility indicator.”

The Ways and Means Committee created a model to project savings by using altered tax rates and a made-up number for how much each dollar of taxes will yield.

In contrast to the scientific, empirical approach of the Pupil Weighting Study, the committee is not using actual data. The result will create a new round of uncertainty for school administrations every year. It will add fuel to the fire of discontent between the Vermont House and Senate. It will wind up in court and waste tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending the indefensible. The committee even created a separate (but equal?) category for English language learners - children who tend to be largely people of color.

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This ludicrous scheme would replace the sound, evidence-based solutions of 25 years of inequity contained in the UVM Pupil Weighting Study with more confusion, uncertainty, and empty promises of better days ahead.

As Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Scott Beck (R–St. Johnsbury) assured me, the plan “provides more equity than the Senate version of S.287, not to mention it makes the Education Fund more transparent and explainable.” There will be pie in the sky by and by. Oh, my!

For taxpayers in Brattleboro, Putney, Guilford, and Dummerston who would prefer our school system reflect best practices around ensuring equity for all our learners and would rather not pay more for less, a call to House Speaker Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) would be a good investment. Her number is 802-828-2245. Do not delay.

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