Campaign for Vermont has been tracking the activities of the Pupil Weighting Factor Task Force. At their last meeting, the Task Force discussed their draft Report on Pupil Weighting Factors (PWF) and approved the Draft as amended by the recommendations made during the meeting.
Few people argue that the weights are sufficient or accurate. The report underscores this point emphatically, and the Task Force agrees. There are clear benefits to making the adjustments to the pupil weights recommended and supported in the PWF Report, to achieve greater educational equity cross school districts, school settings, and type of students, a different or hybrid approach may be warranted.
The following categories were recommended to be used by using an additive mathematical function rather than using multiplicative factors:
• Student needs
• Grade range
• Population density
The report provided a chart with weighting recommendations using these categories with current value and proposed values. Additional recommendations included:
• Eliminate the weight for english language learners in favor of categorical aid.
• Eliminate small school and merger support grants based on school size and other criteria
• Ensure appropriate phase-in mechanisms are in place to ease the transition mechanisms for financing changes
• Establish an Education Tax Advisory Committee to oversee updates and oversight of weighting factors and categorical ail
• Build in a comprehensive evaluation mechanism component
There are other elements in Vermont’s school funding formula that impact the weights and also deserve consideration.
First, although the PWF Report did not examine the current weight assigned to pre-kindergarten students, given that the other weights are outdated and insufficient, the Task Force believe that this weight might also be inaccurate.
Second, as suggested in the PWF Report and required under Act 59, the Task Force reviewed the measurement used for determining a student living in poverty and recommends changing the eligibility criteria from free or reduced lunch (FRL) eligibility to the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP), eventually they would like to mote to a poverty measurement based on a universal income declaration form.
Third, a common and reasonable criticism of Vermont’s school funding system is its complexity. To be consistent and transparent, the Task Force recommends as previously mentioned above, that each of the existing weights under consideration and proposed new weights be applied using an additive mathematical function. This is meant to make them easier to understand than the current way that weights are applied.
The Report also provided the following Additional Recommendations, not directly related to weighting factors:
- Monitor the implementation of the new Act 173 special education census block grant funding.
- Work with the State Board of Education (SBE) and Agency of Education (AOE) to ensure all Vermont students are receiving high-quality education grounded in education quality standards.
- Consider changes to tax policy that would shift education tax liability calculations from a combination of income and property for the purposes of calculating homestead tax rates to a unified system.
- Adjust the property tax calculation to provide a property tax credit that corresponds to the current year property tax bill.
- Modify the pupil weight or alternative funding mechanism for pre-kindergarten students following the completion of the Act 45 child care financing study in 2021.
- Request AOE and SBE jointly establish a standard method for Vermont public schools to set tuition and examine further whether sending or receiving school districts should receive the benefit of additional weighting or cost equity payments within Vermont's school tutioning program.
- Consider the merits of counting Early College Program participants as a full-time student in a school district’s average daily membership count.
- Explore the creation of a categorical aid grant to support students’ mental health services and trauma-informed instructions.
Overall, Vermont’s school funding system is complex, in large part because it makes funding and taxing adjustments to improve equity and also because each school district both contributes to and draws funding from the same statewide education fund. This complexity and collectivity mean that changing one element, like a pupil weight, often has ripple effects across the entire system. It also means that there is much confusion about how the system works.
Although the Task Force recommends a new set of pupil weights as outlined above, it was not comfortable with making a new set of weights as its sole recommendation and thus also offers a cost equity formula alternative. Adding weights for middle school, population density, and small schools improves the overall equity of Vermont’s school funding system, recognizing, as the PWF Report illustrates, that there are added costs to operating schools with these characteristics. The analysis illustrating that operating a school in a very rural, sparsely populated region is more costly than operating a school in other areas underscores the message some Vermont school districts have been voicing for many years.
However, while thorough the analysis in the PWF report was narrow by design. The researchers were not asked the question: What would you recommend as a better system to improve equity than the one we have now? They were asked how they would change the pupil weights to improve equity.
Finally, its important to remember that spending decisions are made at the local level by school boards and ultimately voters, the additional tax capacity generated by a particular pupil weight might lead to additional spending on a number of expenses or a general reduction in tax rates, or both. For example, two-thirds of school districts are likely to see their tax rates drop under the new weights while one third see an increase. Will the districts who see an increase cut their budgets? Will districts who see a decrease in their tax rate increase their spending? If so, how much? The answers to these questions will determine the impacts on individual districts and education spending in the state collectively.