Do our educational results justify our high cost of schooling and is there a better way?

by Robert Maynard

As Vermont continues to be among the top spending states on public schooling, the question is raised as to whether the results justify the expensive approach.  Is there a better way that can deliver a higher quality of education at a lower price?  In almost every industry in the private sector, businesses have had to learn how to “do more with less.”  Why cannot government related efforts do the same thing.  The latest reminder of how much Vermonters spend on our public school system can be found in this recent Vermont Digger article:

The most recent U.S. Census data shows Vermont still spends more on education than nearly every other state in the nation. The state ranks fifth in terms of spending per pupil.

That finding doesn’t come as a surprise, but state’s education stakeholders have different opinions about whether it’s something to take pride in.

Over the years, True North Reports readers familiar with Martin Harris’ writings will note that the drive for smaller class size has been a major factor driving the high costs of education in Vermont.  Martin has also pointed to numerous studies that question the educational benefits of smaller class size  In addition, he has pointed out that, if you dig a little deeper, Vermont’s educational results do not justify its high costs.  In response to the Vermont Digger article, the Campaign for Vermont’s Tom Pelham has raised questions as well over how much educational bang we are getting for our buck:

The U.S. Census report above shows that in 2011 Vermont spent $15,925 per pupil while New Hampshire spent $13,224 and Massachusetts $13,941. According to the Legislature’s 2012 Picus Report, interstate comparisons of NECAP and NAEP student achievement scores show that New Hampshire and Massachusetts children consistently perform better than Vermont’s. Yet, in Vermont we spend so much more. If Vermont’s spending on a per pupil basis in 2011 for our 90,703 pupils was the same as New Hampshire or Massachusetts, we’d have spent between $245 million to $180 million less than we did. That’s big bucks no matter how you look at it and indicates we can do much better for both our children and property tax payers if we can find the courage to wrench our school system from the grip of the education lobby and legislative protectors of the status quo. We could pay for a full pre-k program, we could pay our better teachers much more, and we could lower property taxes. Campaign for Vermont outlines how we can do better without spending more here in its education report “Putting Children First”.

The notion of putting school childern first has been suggested to our political leadership before by John McClaughry of the Ethan Allen Institute:

What should the focus of Vermont education policy be? Schools? Or Schoolchildren?

That’s the question posed by an important new report published July 17 by the Ethan Allen Institute, entitled Schoolchildren First. The goal of the report is to expand and improve high quality educational opportunities for all of Vermont’s children. To achieve that goal, the report proposes to shift the focus of education policy from “schools” to “schoolchildren”. Its plan would for the first time empower all the parents of all of Vermont’s children to choose the kind of education that they believe is best for their children.

Everyone’s child is different. Some thrive in a disciplined environment. Some do better with student-centered learning. Some prefer traditional subject matter. Some prefer a curriculum built around a theme, such as art, music, science, community service, or work opportunities. Some want moral and religious values integrated with their schoolwork.

About eight percent of Vermont’s parents choose independent schools, or homeschooling, as better for their children than public schools. If the parents are wealthy, this is easy. The parents of thousands of kids, however, make real sacrifices to make it possible for their children to attend what they think is the most suitable school, rather than saving the money and allowing the government to assign their child to a public school.

For 132 years parents in (today) 90 Vermont towns have had a choice of schools for their children to attend. In those towns parents can send their children to any public or independent school, in or out of the state, except for sectarian schools.

Schoolchildren First proposes to expand that educational choice system to all parents and all children in all towns of the state. It also proposes a tax credit mechanism that will generate private contributions to underwrite scholarships for pupils wishing to attend faith-based schools not now eligible to receive public tuition payments.

Schoolchildren First proposes no major departure in school financing. There is no magic pot of money that will allow the repeal of the two state property taxes. The report does propose to eliminate one of the state property taxes – the so-called sharing pool – by increasing the other state property tax. Much as most Vermonters would like to reduce the dependence on the property tax for the support of education, there appears to be no feasible way of doing so.

 (Editor’s note: the “new report” cited above was written in 2001)  The political class did not listen then and are not likely to listen now unless there is a suffiencient outcry from average Vermonters to put parents back in charge of their kids’ education.

7 thoughts on “Do our educational results justify our high cost of schooling and is there a better way?

  1. Yes, we should definitely put children first and that means school choice for everyone, not just the elite who can afford it or the folks who live in tuition towns.

    Our property taxes are pooled statewide so we should have statewide school choice. How come our taxes can go to another town, but our kids can’t?

  2. A sort of feudal tenure in the mid Atlantic colonies? And the Dutch Patroons along the Hudson River?
    Not in New England.

  3. Always find Martin Harris’ comments interesting as he is well versed in World, and American history, and thereby can bring perspective that many cannot. But I am confused about his reference to allodial, i.e. freehold land ownership and that it was swept aside, mostly, in the early 19th century?
    In England? In America?
    Lloyd George, I assume, is portrayed as the collectivist by contrast?

    • The phrase “allodial land ownership” is derived from the term “allodium”, ( allōt: “full property”) land freely held, without obligation of service to any overlord. Allodial land tenure was of particular significance in western Europe during the Middle Ages, when most land was held by feudal tenure. This ideal was already pretty much swept away in Erope by the time of the founding, but it also lost ground here in America during the course of the 19th Century.

  4. There’s an argument to be made that land taxes — English Socialist Lloyd George proposed that it be the only tax, since “the community” really owns all land– be removed entirely so that once you’ve acquired property, govt can’t confiscate it; the Founding Fathers proposed allodial land ownership (not feudal, where you pay annual rent to the king or barons) but it was swept aside, mostly, in the early 19th century.

  5. “Much as most Vermonters would like to reduce the dependence on the property tax for the support of education, there appears to be no feasible way of doing so.”

    I like the gist of this article, but I’m afraid this statement sets me off. If there is something that needs a major overhaul–besides our education system–it’s our tax policy. And I believe that property taxes are exactly the wrong way to go–unless you WANT to displace long-time Vermont residents with wealthy newcomers.

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