Opinion: Vermont schools have an equity distribution problem

by Dan MacArthur & Douglas Korb The Legislature has recently passed S.13 establishing a Task Force to study and implement updates to Weighting Factors in Vermont’s Education Funding Formula. The task force will use a study commissioned by the Vermont Legislature, and completed by Professor Kolbe from UVM, which contains some very specific recommendations for how to address the issue of inequity, as the basis for its work.

It is important to note that the recommendations of the study do NOT add any funding from either state or local sources, they simply re-allocate the same pot of money so that local tax rates become more equitable.

It is generally accepted that some local taxpayers in Vermont pay more than others to educate the children in their community- few people dispute this. The residents of communities with larger levels of poverty, larger levels of non-English speaking populations and schools in more rural settings have a larger tax burden than is equitable compared to schools in communities without the above criteria.

Dr. Kolbe’s recommendations make this clear: it costs more and puts a larger tax burden on local taxpayers to educate these kids.

As was stated in Marlboro School’s testimony before the legislature this April: “This [task force] has the work of rectifying this inequity issue as it has been 20 years since the passage of Act 60 and by [our] understanding the weighting of pupils should have been a focus immediately after its passage.”

This means that for 25 years rural schools, impoverished students, and students with English language learning needs have been given short shrift, if not completely neglected.

In the past, Vermont has used block grants or categorical aid to some schools to cover needed extra spending, but this is a stop-gap way to address the issue. We feel that correcting the Weighting formulas will be a more precise and less arbitrary way to get the funds to the needy kids, and more easily duplicatable from year to year.

As the Secretary of Education has already said and testified before the legislature: “VT does not have a fundraising problem, it has an equity distribution problem.”

It has been posited that districts with higher per-pupil spending which fall into any of the above Weighting categories (high levels of poverty, high levels of non-English speakers, or highly rural) would get a larger reduction in local tax rates if the Weighting Study recommendations are implemented, which completely misses the point that the original reason many of these districts have higher per pupil expenses in the first place is because they have more children living in poverty, who do not speak English as a first language, or are more rural. These communities already have a higher local tax burden, and changing the weighting formulas is an effort to change this so that the local tax burdens around Vermont are more equitable.

If people reading this wish to truly understand this issue, as it will most certainly affect tax rates across the state in the next few years, we encourage you to reach out to one of the many organizations that is at the forefront of this issue: The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity is a great place to start as well as your local school board Chair to see if a) they are aware of the issue and understand it and b) are advocating on your town’s behalf to ensure that 25 years of inequity is righted.

This task force is long overdue and we welcome it: we hope the public will see that the right thing to do is to look out for the generation of children in our schools who have been underfunded for the last generation. They will not be getting those years back.

Dan MacArthur & Douglas Korb are Directors of the Marlboro School Board & Members of The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity.