Lawmakers mull competing proposals on how to overhaul school funding system

School buses line up to drop off students at Allen Brook School in Williston in September 2020. Lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Committee are deciding between two versions of the same bill – both of which would bring change radical to the way Vermont funds its schools. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For years, experts have called for changes to Vermont’s school funding formula.

According to experts, the current system is indeed based on incorrect calculations, with the end result being that some school districts have access to more money than others.

Now, in an effort to fix the formula, lawmakers are choosing between two competing versions of the same bill — both of which would result in a significant overhaul of how Vermont funds its schools.

“It’s not that nobody has an opinion on this,” said Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the ways and means committee, which decides between bills. “But as a committee, we haven’t made a decision on which direction we want to go.”

Under current law, Vermont’s school funding formula relies on mathematical tools known as “equalized students” to determine how much money school districts can raise.

The nearly impenetrable system tries to account for the fact that certain categories of students – those who learn English, live in rural or low-income towns, for example – cost more to educate than their classmates.

When a school district counts its total number of students, a student who falls into one or more of these categories effectively counts for more than a counterpart who does not.

Therefore, a district with a high number of English-learning students might have a greater number of “equalized students” than a district with only native English speakers – even if both districts contain the same number of students.

Vermont local property tax rates are based on a district’s expenditure per equalized student. So the more equalized students there are in a district, the more money the district can raise without raising taxes on its residents.

But in 2020, a landmark study by researchers at the University of Vermont found that the system was essentially based on bad math.

The researchers found that the statistical tools the state used to calculate the number of equalized students were actually historical artifacts and had no bearing on the actual costs of educating students.

Now the members of the House committee are deciding how to solve this problem. They must choose between two versions of the same piece of legislation, S.287. A version, which passed the Senate last month, would essentially update existing equalized student values.

This bill would essentially give districts with more low-income, rural, or English-learning students additional tax capacity, allowing them to raise more money without raising taxes.

The other version, which is still being written by the Ways and Means Committee, would create an entirely new funding configuration, known as the “cost adjustment” model.

Under this proposal, districts would simply receive a certain amount of money from the State Education Fund for each student who falls into a series of expensive-to-educate categories, such as those who learn English, live in areas rural or low income.

For each student receiving English language services, for example, a district would receive $25,335, and for each student whose household income was at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, a district would receive $10 $480.

These amounts would not be considered in a district’s tax rate; instead, they would be designed as a cushion that would allow districts to spend more on those students.

“I think the appeal of doing the cost adjustment (model) is the transparency and the fact that we don’t need to keep talking about equalized students,” Ancel said. “The difficulty with equalized students is that everyone in the state can vote on school budgets – not all of them do, but they can – and no one understands what it is. ”

She pointed out that the committee has yet to choose its preferred version of the bill.

But supporters of the original bill say the cost-adjustment model would not go far enough to level the playing field in education.

Because this model is based on the average statewide cost of educating rural, low-income, or English-learning students, it doesn’t account for regional differences, said Marc Schauber, principal. executive of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a group of 27 schools. districts and supervisory unions supporting the equalized student approach adopted by the Senate.

“An example of that is there are parts of the state where it’s really hard to hire teachers,” Schauber said. “They’re out of the way, they’re not close to any towns, there’s no industry for a spouse to find a job. These regions have to pay teachers more.

The Senate legislation, they say, will give districts the ability to increase the actual amounts they must spend.

Vermont Education Secretary Dan French also mildly endorsed the model, saying it would be easier for districts to implement it amid the many Covid-19 challenges facing schools.

“I am concerned about the school district’s ability to implement changes to the funding system and to explain those changes to local ratepayers,” French wrote in testimony submitted to the Ways and Means Committee. “I think the best solution now would be the simplest from an implementation perspective.”

French has indicated that he is open to both funding models.

But Jeff Fannon, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, endorsed the cost adjustment model.

This model “is simpler (and) seems to be more transparent, and I think because of that it’s more understandable for people,” he said. “And I think that’s a good thing for the system as a whole.”

Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro and vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers could also combine aspects of the bills.

“I don’t think it’s like the House version or the Senate version, which are each kind of death or death,” Kornheiser said. Lawmakers are “examining all possible options on the table.”

The question of which funding model to use is at the heart of the committee’s discussion, though lawmakers are also considering a number of other issues, including how quickly to implement the new system and how to measure its success. .

But it’s unclear when committee members might wrap up their debate and choose a way forward. When asked when her committee might vote on a bill, Ancel said she didn’t know.

“We realize that time is running out and this is a bill that needs to be passed,” she said. “So it’s really on our minds.”

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