by Shayne Spence
On Town Meeting Day, Vermonters overwhelmingly rejected the status quo with the largest number of school budget failures since 2003, right before Act 68 was passed. 34 towns voted to reject their school boards proposed budget, just seven towns short of 2003’s record of 41. 209 passed their budgets, 12 have not yet reported results, and 19 votes are still yet to be held. In recent years, an average of 12 budgets has failed each year.
The complex education funding system has led to disconnect between local spending decisions and tax rates that are set statewide and adjusted by locality. Towns who vote for increases in spending may be insulated to the costs of that increase by income sensitivity, while towns who keep budget increases low but have high property values will see large tax increases no matter what they do. Montpelier, a city where the budget usually passes with little fanfare, this year failed to pass their school budget. Despite holding increases to 2%, their tax rate was set to go up 13%, and voters revolted. The same thing is happening statewide. This has led many lawmakers to engage in a discussion about how to reorganize education in Vermont, to realize cost savings while maintaining quality outcomes for students.
Of course, the popular method for doing so under the Golden Dome is consolidation. Legislation in front of the House Education Committee would consolidate the current 285 districts to anywhere from 14-30 megadistricts. Rep. Peter Peltz (D-Woodbury) who is vice-chair of House Education, said that consolidated districts could see savings, but those savings would take a while to realize. Savings would largely be realized at the administrative level, by sharing expenses for audits and other management work. The budget defeats “send a message that the status quo needs to be looked at, at the very least,” said Peltz.
However, there is some debate over whether consolidation will actually realize cost savings at all. Greg Forster of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice says “Consolidation doesn’t need to be accelerated; it needs to be halted and reversed.” Noting that since 1940, the number of school districts in the United States has shrunk from 110,000 to just 13,500 now, Forster says “As more and more decisions get made by distant and insulated bureaucrats, the system just gets bloated and inefficient. Academic results have not budged an inch, but we are spending many times more per student on bloat.”
And given Vermont’s own experience post-Act 60/68, of rapidly declining student rolls juxtaposing rapidly increasing costs – all while multiple districts have taken advantage of incentives to consolidate – it can be said that consolidation has been tried here. Vermonters enjoy local control of their schools, and attempts to consolidate take away that local control. Voters in rural Westford would have their interests trampled by voters in Burlington. Stowe High School would either be closed or forced under a global operating budget determined by voters all around Lamoille County. And despite Governor Peter Shumlin saying the large number of budget rejections proves “local control over school budgets is alive and well”, attempts to consolidate would end this local control once and for all in Vermont.
This is what is causing the push for more school choice. Towns like North Bennington are leading the way, with Westford now exploring its options as well in setting up an independent school. Parents in the southern regions of the state are realizing what Northeast Kingdom parents have known for generations – when they are in control of their children’s education, they can ensure the quality they want and keep costs low through competition. Parents want to have real choice in educating their children, and under the current system their only method of expressing that is by voting down their school budgets. Rep. Peltz is right, 34 budget failures does send a message. But that message is a different c-word – choice, not consolidation.
Shayne Spence is the Outreach and Development Coordinator for the Ethan Allen Institute.