Once again, the Legislature is focusing on education funding and policy. As many of you may have guessed, I have strong feelings about education, which, in my view, is the most important investment we can make in the future of our local communities, our state, and our country.
As we work on potential changes to how this important investment is made, it is critical that we look at all aspects including cost, quality, the wellbeing of our children, and what we are getting for our money. It would also be prudent to consider the results if we don’t do a good job and the costs associated with mediocrity or failure.
The issue driving this conversation is the rising cost of property taxes – the main source of revenue funding education in Vermont. As we look for ways to be more efficient and cost-effective, we should determine why costs are rising despite a diminishing population of children. The cost of personnel is a large part of it but what part does the cost of special education and health care play? Value judgments need to be made. Do we have too many teachers or are our smaller classes a better environment for learning? Does this contribute to our excellent national ranking in terms of student achievement?
As we proceed with the conversation about education, the topic of consolidation will arise – in fact, it already has. To be clear, I don’t think consolidation is a necessarily bad thing. In some cases, it may be warranted but it should be a decision made by the towns involved and not because Montpelier says so or enacts policies that place a stranglehold on towns causing the slow death of their schools. Will consolidation make it easier or harder for parents to participate in their child’s education? Is this still important? Does it advance the wellbeing of our children? Does it actually save money? A couple of researchers from Penn State have concluded that it doesn’t.
My past objection to the elimination of the Small Schools Grant is that it has been proposed in a somewhat capricious way in a “money” committee without any deep discussion in the appropriate policy committee regarding the ramifications it would have.
The Small Schools Grant has been an easy target the last few years but it is really a tiny drop in the $1.6 billion education “bucket”. Eliminating it would have a negligible effect on the property tax rate but would have huge implications for many schools and the children that attend them. It was created just after Act 60 was enacted to offset the effect of the per pupil spending basis of that legislation.
The original goal of Act 60 was to offer all Vermont children an equal opportunity for education, not to disadvantage small schools – but with fewer pupils and no economy of scale that was exactly the effect. The Small Schools Grant compensated for what may have been an unintended consequence. The original program included all schools with fewer than 100 students. It was subsequently changed to include all schools with grades with fewer than 20 students, which expanded the program greatly. Perhaps, we should look at alternatives to elimination, for instance, going back to the original definition or basing them on achievement.
Part of this conversation has to be about the quality of education offered in small schools. Last year, when I had a conversation with Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, over lunch, she was very clear that she was not talking about closing small elementary schools because children can get a great education in that setting. She was more concerned with small high schools that might not be able to give students the kind of classes they really need to go onto college and compete in today’s world. We need to determine how we measure success – what does it look like?
It is clear that education is evolving. In the 1800s, my hometown, Windham, had eight schools. Fifty years ago Windham had two one-room schools, one of which can still be seen in South Windham. In 1963, after one school burned, it was decided that the populations of the two schools would merge and one two-room school would be built to replace them. Public School Approval in the 1990s mandated that we add space for a library, special education, etc. Despite the changes in education, the school is still an important part of the Windham community. Careful thought needs to be given before any future irreversible changes are made.
In his budget speech, the governor laid out five principles to guide us as we make decisions about budget priorities. The governor’s third principle is wherever possible, we must make smart choices by not cutting programs that deliver more to Vermonters in economic opportunity and support than they cost. The fourth is that we should not cut state programs if it will do far more harm than good down the road. These principles should also apply to our education conversation. A good education provides economic opportunity and a year at our most expensive school is much cheaper than what it costs to keep someone in prison for a year later in life.