The legislature formed a task force during the 2021 session to study pupil weighting factors that determine the tax rates and spending ability of local school districts. This is not the first time that the issue of pupil weighting factors has been discussed or studied.
Under current law, Vermont’s school funding formula includes a fairly limited and modest set of weights that have been in use since before the Act 60 shift to a tax equalization formula. In other words, the weights currently used were determined over 25 years ago for the State’s previous foundation formula financing model. Few people argue that the weights are sufficient or accurate.
In 2018 a legislative study was undertaken via Act 173 found that:
- The current weights for economically disadvantaged students, english language learners and secondary level students should be modified – new cost factors and weights should be incorporated into the equalized pupil calculation and the special education grant should be adjusted for differences and costs across school districts (which by the way are not adequately accounted for under current law).
- Neither the factors considered by the current formula nor the value of the weights reflect contemporary education circumstances.
- Certain existing weights – like population density (rurality) etc. should be increased. However, there is concern that in so doing, it would produce fluctuation in tax rates across the state.
- Some new weights for rurality and poverty should be added.
The general assembly has chosen to develop a phased-in approach to revising the weighting formulas. In this light, the task force that was created in 2021 was asked to recommend an action plan and propose legislation to ensure that all public-school students have equitable access to educational opportunities.
The recommendations from the report:
- How to integrate the weighting calculations with equalized pupil calculations, excess spending threshold, and yield calculations
- How to define a ‘person from an economically deprived background’
- Change the mathematical formula to make it more simplified and transparent
- Change Agency of Education (AOE) statutory powers to ensure all school districts are meeting education quality standards and improving student outcomes and opportunities
- Ease the financial impact on school districts including availability and use of federal funding; consider the relationship between the recommended weights and categorial aid and the changes to special education funding
- Analyze the interaction between the recommended weights, categorical aid and the goals and outcomes of major education initiatives as a way to mitigate the impacts on residential property
- Recommend what to do with the excess spending threshold
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.
One thing of interest is the requirement that AOE, in collaboration with the Joint Fiscal Office (JFO), create a weighting formula simulator that will allow users to model the proposed changes on all school district tax rates.
The University of Vermont published a report entitled ‘response to questions on model/weight selection’ dated September 8, 2021 which attempted to address questions/concerns about the various models being discussed and the final selection of the pupil weighting formula.
The report identifies the differences between models weighted at the district level vs. school level when reviewing student needs, context enrollment, population density and grade range and the differences in costs for school size and rurality. The report noted that the weights can be applied separately or in combination in an equalized pupil calculation. In the UVM simulation it was assumed that the population density weights would be applied to districts with less than 100 persons per square mile. School size weights would only be applied in districts with less than 50 persons per square mile.