Education Spending - April 3, 2024

Chairman Conlon reviewed the House Education Committee’s “accomplishments” for the year, which, “if all goes well” would be four bills:

  • PCBs testing Pause,
  • BOCES, BOCES we hope organically grows scale and collaboration leading to cost savings we hope.
  • Community Schools FY funding,
  • School Construction program.

However, he noted, none of these addresses or responds to the “urgency many people are feeling, and the challenge in here is to be thoughtful, patient, well vetted” with regard to education spending. Many legislators are looking to put together a task force for the big problem(s) and who and what etc.

Representative Taylor wanted to be sure they are still considering short- and medium-term things they can still do this session and not lose sight of these in the development of a task force. Representative Brady agreed that they still need to do need to work, potentially with the yield bill to seek short-term solutions.

Representative Austin felt like the solutions here were too complex for citizen legislators to solve the big problems, she wondered what they could possibly do in the short-term.

Conlon stated that the Committee should be talking about “bigger fixes” and whether there they should be thinking about restructuring how we fund education in Vermont. He asked the Committee to “throw out some topics” for discussion. There was silence.

Pivoting, he asked if the group would “like to hear from their guests to get their thoughts?” But thoughts did start coming:

  • Austin would like an “inventory” of all current statutes, rules, and regulations in place today.
  • Representative Minier would like to understand where Brigham fits.
  • Taylor wants Career and Technical Education Centers (CTEs) front and center so we can better utilize them. He would also like to review overall what functions that are happening in the public school system right now should be paid for out of the Education Fund.
  • Representative McCann wants to move towards a governance model that heads towards a Department of Education again. Also interested in a single school district or a statewide teacher contract.
  • Brady wants a better picture of social services and their role within schools. And perhaps grow the Community Schools model.

Austin wondered whether social services should be a mission in the schools or what the role of government actually is. Representative Brownell agreed that they should look at how these various services affect one another, even before we decide if they should be provided in the schools.

There was also general consensus that they needed to understand the various roles that schools are playing and whether they should be funded by property taxes or some other revenue source.

Conlon then turned to Jay Nichols (Executive Director, Vermont Principals Association) for guidance. Nichols agreed that there should be alignment on what should be included in the Education Fund and define the mission of those dollars. Once that is set, policy makers should be aware of mission creep. Once there is direction and alignment of what belongs, “no more complaining about the costs.” He argued they should be realistic, straight forward and transparent about things like mental health.

He expanded his argument, saying “we should no longer compromise… Every time we give money out of our current Ed Fund system and give it to any entity that isn’t following state rule that is part of mission creep, it’s not fair.”

NOTE: What’s really not fair is failing our students because of squabbles over who should be allowed to receive public funds.

“Also, the Agency of Education (AOE) needs to offer leadership not just compliance… Leadership is totally missing,” he added. He met with many longtime AOE staff Monday, and these agree they want to talk about the direction of AOE. They want to lead and inspire the field and offer tools to do that. “That means fully funded AOE that has the tools they need,” he stated.

NOTE: The AOE absolutely needs more resources to provide leadership and enforcement. There is zero accountability for public schools who are failing students and/or taxpayers.

Representative Williams asked about the certification process with training for teachers, wondering “why are they not teaching to the requirements we feel they should be teaching to? Why? Are they not getting the support to do training… why are so many children leaving after 12 grades and not being to read? Is that a fair question?” 

There was no response to this question.

“Should we be adding to the AOE staffing,” Brownell questioned. Nichols countered that the current AOE was not interested in that because of direction from the Governor. Instead, he thought the Agency should be a to a Department that is “only interested in complying with the law” as they best serve Vermont students.

Brownell kept pushing, saying that legislators “keep hearing the teachers are not getting the support and instruction they need.” It seemed to him that the AOE was the correct way to provide staff to support these teachers.

Colin Robinson (Political Director, Vermont National Education Association) spoke next, pointing to Act 173, which cast as a “way to support our struggling learners.” At that point they were not experiencing the “workforce deficits” that they are now so those block grants were prioritized over professional development. There are currently 800 educators operating on provisional licenses.

He added that the Task Force should be built to “stitch together BOCES and school construction bills, etc.” so they are not lost in parallel. The scope should also be “narrow and financed”, as well as a process of engagement or it may feel like just another report, he believed.

NOTE: Limiting the scope too far will result in a less than comprehensive look at this system. There are a number of factors that interplay with each other, you can’t touch one part of the system without impacting another.

Robinson urged caution on a statewide teacher’s contract, mentioning the current statewide healthcare contract and how that has worked.

Conlon turned to Jeff Francis (Executive Director, Vermont Superintendents Association) who stated that the charge of the Task Force should be married with the “short term fixes” so they “fit together down the road.”

Francis then renewed his attacks on the “utilization of private schools in the delivery system,” calling it the “absence of a policy that says: where a school is closed [students] can go anywhere they want.” Essentially his argument is that town tuitioning would negate and cost savings of closing our smallest schools.

NOTE: There are a couple ways he is misleading here. First, is that a town must vote to adopt a tuitioning model. It doesn’t happen automatically or in the absence of some other policy, it has to be actively chosen. Second is that, while there has been no complete study, most of the anecdotal evidence is that independent schools in Vermont actually cost less than our public schools currently do.

He also questioned where AOE leadership was on the issues facing the education system, saying “we are responding to a crisis that many saw coming for a long time so now are dealing in crisis management mode…”

NOTE: Yes, we did see this current crisis coming over a decade ago when the Legislature failed to address the underlying dynamics of the education system in Act 46. Francis helped to write the bill (AKA the Superintendents Relief Act)…

Francis urged Legislators to change the cost structures of the categorical aid system and social services to shift costs away from the schools. Community Schools, he believes, won’t fit the current funding models. His second recommendation was to impose hiring freezes, staff caps, and wage freezes. Labor is “the big money,” he noted.

Finally, he noted that they could find ways to suppress costs in the short-term but without a system change these will come back. Counter to Robinson’s advice, he would “make sure everything is on the table,” for the task force. He added that “every single year we have added… either fixes that we thought would fix what ailed the system or literally piled more things on for the system to do.” Even the BOCES bill will complicate the policy and the short-term fixes discussions.

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