Vermont to reconsider education funding formula

By Mary C. Tillotson | Watchdog.org

Vermont students receive some of the costliest education in the country, and this year about 30 towns turned down their education budgets – even Burlington, an especially progressive part of the state – amid complaints of high taxes.

Some state lawmakers are reconsidering the state’s funding formula for education. After a Republican-sponsored bill failed last year, state Reps. Heidi Scheuermann and Patti Komline — both Republicans — filed a petition at change.org, hoping the public would be more open than the Democrat-controlled Legislature, according to Vermont Public Radio.

The current system allows for almost no accountability, said Rob Roper, president of the Ethan Allen Institute.

“The formula is local towns vote for their budgets, and the state raises the money to pay for those budgets no matter what they are,” he said. “If you go to your House or Senate and say, ‘My property tax is going up,’ they shrug their shoulders and say, ‘It has nothing to do with me.’ If you go to your local officials, they shrug their shoulders and say it’s out of their hands; it’s in the Legislature.

“If you’re a disgruntled voter, where do you go? Who do you vote out of office?”

Roper advocates expanding the state’s town tuitioning program, which allows funding to follow the students to private schools if their town doesn’t have a public school. About 3 percent of Vermont’s students are eligible for the program. Roper said students should be eligible, even if their town has a public school.

Since private school tuition costs less than the state’s per-pupil spending, a tuitioning expansion would reduce overall education costs.

The Vermont National Education Association believes the state’s funding formula is “fairer here than anywhere,” said Darren Allen, communications director for the teachers union.

“On the one hand, the completely honest answer (is) we should always spend more on schools, but the practical answer is we believe the system works well for most people and most schools,” Allen said.

Vermont students are high achievers nationally, and Allen attributes the achievement to the high cost of education.

“As the funding system allows for more Vermont kids to have a shot at really good teachers and good facilities and good programs, their performance has really increased dramatically,” he said.

Vermont could probably stand to lower its costs and still provide a quality education, said Eric Hanushek, Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute.

“This has been a topic that’s been researched very intensively for a long period of time, and I think everybody agrees that how you spend money is much more important than how much you spend,” Hanushek said.

Two factors, he said, primarily determine education spending — class size and teacher salary, often based on experience and graduate degrees. None of these factors is related to student achievement, he said, except the first few years of teaching experience.

“That’s why it doesn’t work,” he said. “The only thing that really matters, as far as I can tell, in schools is how good the teachers are. If you want to spend money wisely and increase student achievement, what you have to do is make sure that teacher salaries are related to how effective the teachers are. That’s what you have to do.

“The correlation really reflects that Vermont teachers are really smart and pretty good at helping kids, and they have a long tradition of good schools,” he said.

Rep. Chris Pearson, Sen. Bobby Starr, Rep. Cynthia Browning, Rep. Johannah Donovan, Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, Rep. Pattie Komline, Rep. Janet Ansel, and Sen. Tim Ashe did not return calls for comment.

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at mtillotson@watchdog.org.