4.19.2013 – Proposed Education Changes

The House Ways and Means Committee recently voted out H.538, a bill that would make several changes to Vermont’s education funding system. Included is a provision that would eliminate the “Small Schools” grant over a period of three years starting in 2016. Other elements of the bill include reducing the excess spending threshold, the cap on income sensitivity adjustments, and the allocable rent for the renter rebate calculation. It asks the Agency of Education to establish minimum acceptable student/instructional staff ratios and student/administrative staff ratios. It increases the income percentage floor for those paying by income and expands income sensitivity to higher income levels.

This bill is in response to a significant increase in education spending in FY2014 and a similar 5% projected increase in FY2015 – each year at $70+ million. Annually, a combination of local and state action is involved in setting the state property tax rate. Local towns vote for their budgets; it is up to the Legislature to determine how to pay for it.

I have deep concern for the provision to eliminate the Small Schools grant. In the interest of full disclosure, the two small schools in my legislative district, Windham and Grafton, will not be affected because they are deemed “geographically isolated”. However, the towns of Dover, Jamaica, Marlboro, Townshend, and Wardsboro all have small schools that will be, and as a member of the Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU) Board, I feel I must represent them as well.

When Act 60 was enacted, it was recognized that the formula, based on per pupil spending, heavily favored large schools. Data showed that small schools, while they might cost a little more due to a lack of economy of scale, had great results in terms of student outcome so the Small Schools grant was created. The original definition of a small school was any school with fewer than 100 students. The following year, the definition was changed to include any school that had a grade with fewer than 20 students, which expanded the grant cost.

During the previous administration, we began to hear that education was costing too much. Student populations were decreasing, while costs were going up. At the time, however, it was noted that education spending, as a percentage of gross state product, remained essentially level while health care and fuel costs were skyrocketing, both of which education budgets had to absorb.

At the time, a judgment seemed to have been made that it was small schools that were the cause of increased spending; since then attempts have been made to restrict the “oxygen supply” to the small schools to force them to consolidate. What does the actual Agency of Education 2013 data tell us? It’s somewhat counterintuitive given the concept of economy of scale, but when we look at the budgeted expenditures as voted per equalized pupil, we find that in small schools of under 100 students the cost is $16,940, in medium schools of 100-500 students the cost is $16,379, large schools of 500-1000 students -$16,062, and in extra-large schools of over 1000 students the cost is $17,367.

The reason given to phase out the small schools grants is that in 35% of the cases, these grants essentially subsidize the taxpayers in a district with a small school. The thinking at the time of Act 60 and data from the small schools study seem to have been forgotten and I fear that we are willing to cut the small schools off without considering the effect this will have on the children in those schools.

Before we make any more attempts to cut education spending, especially in small schools, we should engage in a conversation in which goals are set, principles established, and serious consideration given to how we can provide the best education for all of Vermont’s children in the most cost effective way, measuring each proposal against our goals and principles. Part of the conversation needs to be about what the cost drivers actually are (why is it extra-large schools actually cost the most?), what we want our communities to look like in 20-50 years (do we really think our children will come back to Vermont’s rural communities to raise their children when the schools are gone?), and what value, including student outcomes, we are getting from schools of all sizes for the huge amount we spend on education per year.

Education is the most important investment we make in our children, our community, our state, and our country. We should make sure that we are getting value for our money, but we should be making decisions based on current factual information, not just numbers.