November 16 - Putting Students First

As appeared in the Caledonian Record 11/16/2016 - link

Vermont’s education system is undergoing many changes. Not all of them welcomed or desired. From its founding our state has a great history of commitment to public education. Vermont was the first state to recognize education as a right in its constitution.

These early schools were run by towns and villages, but much like the rest of the country, the system evolved. At the end of the 19th century Vermont went through its first mass consolidation of school districts and moved from one district per school to a town based approach. Supervisory Unions were eventually added as a second-tier structure between districts and the state Department of Education – largely due to federal mandates. A second wave of consolidation came in the 1960s with the unionization of High Schools.

Perhaps the largest change in Vermont’s education system happened in the late 1990s with the Brigham Decision and the passage of Act 60 and 68 that removed the taxation authority from local school districts and pushed it up to the state level. Almost immediately after the passage of Act 60 school spending and spending per student accelerated. You can see the trend here: campaignforvermont.org/edtrends.

In response the Legislature passed the RED process in 2010 to incentivize school districts to consolidate, only one district did so. In 2012 they created the MUDD process which made consolidation easier and added incentives, only one district merged. In 2014 they decided to make the process mandatory. The result is that every district in the state now must go through a consolidation process prior to 2019 or they may be forced to merge by the State Board of Education.

Neither large consolidation effort had any demonstrable long-term savings. The 1890s consolidation may have actually increased tax rates by as much as 30 percent. The 1960s high school consolidation may have made sense for the quality of education being delivered to students, but long-term savings cannot be demonstrated.

What both consolidations did do, however, is make it easier for the state administrators to manage the system from the top down. One of the primary motivations behind their support for Act 46.

Today spending per student is more than double what it was in 1998 when Act 60 passed, we have 18,000 fewer students and we spend $650 million more on education. Spending trends indicate that education costs rose dramatically after the implementation of Act 60 and 68 which would point to the education funding formula as a driving force behind Vermont’s current property tax crisis and the ensuing affordability issues.

Act 46 was passed on two notable pretenses: reducing the cost of education and improving the quality of educational outcomes. However, Act 46 does not address the funding formula put in place by Act 68. Further, many districts going through consolidations right now have identified negligible savings. Only about a dozen districts in the state are well positioned for merger without major modifications to their current structures. These districts are likely to eat up merger incentives offered by Act 46 which are paid out of the statewide education fund - increasing the statewide tax rate. Essentially Act 46 raises taxes in the short term with hopes of lowering them long-term. A risky bet given the history of consolidation in Vermont.

We should also address the second “goal” of Act 46: improving educational outcomes. Campaign for Vermont (CFV) published a study in the fall of 2014 showing that statistically neither the size of a school district or the level of spending have significant effects on the quality of outcomes for Vermont School districts. Additionally, CFV found that there was no relationship between the size of the school district and the level of spending per student. Meaning that larger districts are not necessarily more cost effective.

What we did find however, is that by far the most significant indicator of how well a school district performed was the median household income within the district. At the time the Agency of Education (AOE) and education lobbyists disputed our findings and urged consolidation as the answer to Vermont’s problems. Now a new study from AOE agrees with our 2014 study that income is the best indicator of student performance.

To be clear, family income level does not inherently make a student less able to learn or succeed in academic pursuits or otherwise. However, low-income students are likely to have parents with lower levels of educational attainment. Perhaps more importantly, low-income homes tend to be less stable than middle and upper income households. Stability within the household and an emphasis on the importance of educational studies are two leading factors in creating a good learning environment for children.

All of these factors taken together would lead us to believe that Act 46 was a misguided attempt at reform lead by status-quo group think and education lobbyists pulling the wool over lawmakers eyes.

This of course is before mentioning school choice which is a model much of the country is moving towards as a means for reducing costs and increasing outcomes, yet Act 46 moves us in exactly the opposite direction.

This is not to say that consolidation doesn’t make sense for some districts or that any district with a large low-income population cannot produce great outcomes. What we are saying is that consolidation does not make sense for all districts, we should not be mandating every community go through a process that will consume a great deal of energy and resources if it doesn’t make sense for them, and we certainly should not be asking districts where consolidation won’t work to pay for mergers in districts where it will.

If our goal is truly to reduce costs and increase outcomes we should focus on areas that have the most impact while still respecting local decision making. Here are a couple recommendations to get us started:

• Repeal the mandate on school districts to consolidate under Act 46.

• Restructure the incentives for Act 46 so they do not impact the statewide property tax rate.

• Reform the education funding formula to make it more transparent so communities understand the impact of their education spending decisions and have more control over the outcomes.

• We should move toward embedding Department of Children and Families (DCF) case workers in school districts. Schools are already taking on many of these tasks due to state and federal mandates, but even though they are often best positioned to identify problems their hands are tied. Partnering DCF, educators, and support staff should reduce the burden on school districts, make DCF more effective, and provide better outcomes for at-risk students.

The changes we are talking about are not superficial, they are not one-time fixes or band-aid cosmetic patches. These recommendations will enable school districts to reduce overhead and give them the tools to make their own decisions about education outcomes and spending for years to come.

Campaign for Vermont will continue to put forward and advocate for non-partisan research-based policy positions that benefit all Vermonters. You can read more about our education proposals and research at CampaignforVermont.org/education.

Benjamin Kinsley is executive director of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity and a native Vermonter and graduate of Norwich University. He is committed to government reforms in transparency, accountability, and sustainability and has been outspoken on issues ranging from local control to animal rights.

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