by Martin Harris
Recently a resident/property-owner (oops, make that “steward”) taxpayer asked me to comment in a sort of mini-analysis on his taxes –comparatively, quantitatively, productively—and, in response to my first question “what’s the 2012 rate?” said he didn’t know. It soon turned out that one of the Town’s senior officers (all names here have been redacted to comply with those well-known Constitutional clauses with emanations and penumbras of “privacy”) claimed he didn’t know either, so the following data are drawn from a mix of public- and private-sector websites.
On a real-estate website there’s a 2010 summary of total rates by Town: Middlebury came in at $2.17 for homesteads (there’s another, higher, rate, for non-residential), which made it the top in Addison County and in the company of such top Towns elsewhere as Stannard in Caledonia County, Braintree in Orange, Rutland City, Barre City, Montpelier City and Northfield Town in Washington, Athens and Brattleboro in Windham, and Springfield in Windsor. The State average was $1.71, so Middlebury surpassed the standard (a little ed-lingo, there) by 127%. Next year the total homestead Tax Rate will be $2.52, a local newspaper website says.
On the State Education website there’s a 2011 ranking of school district spending by school type (Middlebury runs an elementary, sends to a union high) which shows that Middlebury spent $13,452 per equalized pupil and came in at #59. By way of comparison, Bennington spent $9,495 and came in at #254. Both are above the State’s official Base Educational Support Amount in the high $8,000’s, which is paid for with the State property tax of about $.86, one of the items within the total Town Tax of $2.17. The Town (services) tax is about $.82, and the final piece is the Town (school) tax for the per-pupil spending over the BESA amount, which works out to $1.35 total less the BESA rate ($.86) or $.49 for the local education tax. Using grade school math, Middlebury spends about 62% of its property-tax take on education.
Also on the SED website is a useful data set once made hard-to-get: The federal (NAEP) achievement test scores, not the remarkably easier and therefore seemingly-higher-results State-preferred tests (now it’s NECAP, but that will change again soon, because the scores are still not high enough after earlier tests like NSRE). These are State averages, not local schools’ (emanations and penumbras of privacy, again) and they show grade 8 reading scores, resulting from the $13.5 thousand per pupil spending, at 272 out of 500, for a Proficiency percentage of 37 in 2009. The other 63 couldn’t make Proficient, couldn’t (rough approximation) function at grade level, but were promoted into high school anyway. Your Humble Scribe couldn’t find the local reading test scores, either NAEP (which would permit -gasp- comparison with other States) or NECAP (which would permit comparison with other schools) on the local school’s websites. HS guess: Middlebury’s unknown-because-unpublished scores for, say, reading, aren’t all that different from the known-because-published Vermont and national scores for reading. Further HS guess: these scores are quite well-known at the local administrator level; so, unlike the “we don’t know our own tax rate” answer at the Town offices, it’s probably more like “we know but you won’t” at the school offices. Whether the scores justify the spending is a whole ‘nother question.
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As is the frequent assertion of “we are excellent” coming from local and State officials after each NAEP test score release. Usual media template: “In 2009 Vermont scored at or near the top for all States in reading”, with a grade 4 score of 229.” And, when you look it up in the 2010 National Digest of Educational Statistics, that’s what you’ll find in Table 129. You’ll also find, in the Table but not in the template, the score range ( 0-to-500) and the percent of test-takers above Proficient ( for VT, that was 41, meaning (a little grade 3 math here) that 59% were being promoted without mastering grade-level material. And, of course you’ll not find in the template “reporting” the uncomfortable “score-by-race” numbers, which show the various minorities depressing most State averages (where they’re present in statically visible numbers) so that, for the US as a whole, for the white cohort, that national average reading score was actually 229, the same as the overall VT score, where the statistically-insignificant black cohort came in at 214. By that measure, VT isn’t excellent; it’s average; and at a spending level some 60% above the national level. In sharp (and never in the media template) contrast is the Utah result, where class sizes twice those of VT enable per-pupil-spending half that of VT, and the white grade 4 reading result there is 225. Those four points of score difference are (a little grade 6 math here) less than 2%. None of the above scores is available, of course, at the local school level. And never is the most important question asked: why are all Vermont schools (is Mary Hogan included? We aren’t permitted to know) whose single most important foundation function is the introduction of children to the basics of reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, so willing and eager to declare their high-cost operations “excellent” even as, every year, they’re sending a majority of their students forth into middle school at less-than-Proficient levels of competence?
You can observe the non-interest in the basic literacies in two areas, one political and one academic. The political one, which is fun to watch, if not quite reassuring regarding educator motives, is the campaign to defeat the Federal goal of most-students-Proficient-by-2014. Since 2001 the K-12 system has been on notice to recapture the no-promotion-without-Proficiency standard of the ‘50’s and earlier, when it was simply accepted that literacy and numeracy were “Job One” of public education, and yet the vast majority of schools is statistically unlikely, as measured by the Annual Yearly Progress scale, to get back up to that norm by 2014. So their administrators, from Commissioners on down, are attacking AYP. In Vermont, they’ve filed suit.
In the academic area, the schools’ various statements of goals and objectives are enlightening: lots on creative thinking and critical analysis, all college level content, and the basic literacies, if mentioned at all, are the last item on the list. See the Vermont State Education Department’s web page for a fairly typical example. But how can semi-illiterates function at the university level? Maybe that’s why there’s now so much Remedial Reading in Freshman Year.