Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.
Republicans, as they rarely fail to remind the world, are budget-cutters. They favor lower taxes, hence less public spending. They are constantly in search of ways to reduce the cost of government.
Except when they are not.
This week in Vermont, most Republicans have decided that they are not, at least not when it comes to a bill designed to hold down spending on public schools. At their party caucus Tuesday, several Republicans, including three who had supported the bill in committee, said they’d vote against it when it comes to the House floor, probably Wednesday.
“I regret my vote,” said Rep. Patti Lewis of Berlin, the ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, who voted for the bill in committee last week.
It isn’t just that the Republicans were being hypocritical. One reason Lewis and William Johnson of Canaan were switching on the bill, they said, was that Democrats were changing it in a way which “waters down,” in Johnson’s words, one potential cost-saving proposal — the language that would “require the (Department of Education) to establish student-teacher ratios.”
Depending on who is doing the counting and when, Vermont has either the lowest or second-lowest ratio of total staff (though not necessarily teachers) to students in the country. Johnson said that payroll accounted for 75 percent of the cost of education, so weakening this provision seriously undercut the potential effectiveness of the bill.
But the Republican opponents also acknowledged that they dislike another provision of the bill (H.538), and this one was not being watered down by the Democrats. It would reduce the Small School Grant by both reducing the number of schools eligible for the grant and providing less money to the schools that remained eligible.
In fiscal year 2013, the Small School Grant program funneled more than $7 million to 104 schools in the state’s smallest, most remote, towns.
Precisely the parts of the state most likely to elect Republican legislators, who are then likely to support as much state aid as possible for their constituents.
In this case, the Republicans were willing to sacrifice some of that aid in return for exerting more control over the student-staff ratio. But when they heard that Education Committee Chair Johannah Donovan, a Burlington Democrat, was planning changes in Section 12 of the bill, relating to student-to-staff ratios, many changed their minds.
In fact, some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Don Turner of Milton, said they suspected Democrats had proposed the bill in the first place only so they could tell voters next year that they had tried to “do something” about school spending.
“It’s a feeble attempt,” Turner said. “There’s no real chance this is going anywhere.”
He seems to be right about that. The Senate has not taken up the measure, and it’s getting late in the session.
It was not clear Tuesday, exactly what changes Donovan intended, but it would be no surprise if they made it more difficult to reduce student-staff ratios in the schools. As Republicans are beholden to the wishes of small town educators and taxpayers, Democrats can not ignore the interests of the education establishment, including Vermont’s chapter of the National Education Association. Unions rarely approve of legislation that is likely to reduce the size of their bargaining unit.
But in an email early Wednesday morning, Donovan insisted her proposed changes would improve – not weaken – the bill’s effort to establish an acceptable teacher-student ratio.
“I have added language that will specifically get numbers of student-classroom teacher ratio which is different than student-teacher ratio,” she said, adding that she was “trying to accurately depict the reality” of the teacher-student ratio.
Even when they work in a bipartisan manner, legislators often send conflicting signals on school spending. Lawmakers from both parties have devised incentives for schools or districts to consolidate in an effort to save money. But the Small School Grant is a disincentive to consolidate.
And the legislators are not alone in being conflicted. So, perhaps, are the voters. There is something close to a consensus in the state that consolidating districts and supervisory districts – if not schools – is one way to cut school spending without reducing the quality of education. But almost every time a specific consolidation plan is put to the voters of an area, they reject it.
One lawmakers pointed out another contradiction in Vermont’s school finance policy. Even as the two houses consider one bill designed to hold down school spending, they are about to vote on another one that would increase it.
It may not be insignificant that the lawmaker who pointed that out did not want to be identified.
The bill that would increase spending is H.270, which proposes to provide at least 10 hours per week of “high quality, publicly funded pre-kindergarten education” for 35 weeks per year. As school spending goes, this would not be a big increase. The Joint Fiscal Office has estimated it would cost about $2 million a year.
Still, if the bill passes – and it is strongly endorsed by Gov. Peter Shumlin – the same Legislature which is trying to control school costs would be voting to increase them.
Both bills seem likely to pass, with most Democrats and perhaps even a few Republicans supporting them. Turner said his caucus would take no official party position on either measure.
“But we have to do something with the education funding system,” he said.
Many Democrats agree. It’s just what that “something” ought to be that divides them.