Ann Manwaring: The canary in the school yard

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Ann Manwaring, of Wilmington, a Democrat who served five terms in the Vermont House of Representatives.

When the voters of Wilmington and Whitingham voted to create the Twin Valley Joint Contract schools they had no inkling that 15 years later the budget that supports those schools at the town meetings just completed would require enormous property tax rate increases, even though total spending was decreased by over $200,000 over the prior year. Whitingham will see a tax rate increase of an estimated 34 cents and Wilmington taxpayers will have an increased tax rate estimated to be 22 cents. It is not a surprise that the budget was defeated in both towns.

In the first phase of our consolidation, our kids in middle and high school merged quickly and successfully, creating merged sports teams, common class work and all the other social and academic work important to successful schools. The adults took a little longer. Twice petitions sought to undo the joint schools, and twice the petitions were defeated in both towns by substantial margins. By that time, pride in the new school had emerged for students, parents, faculty, administrators and for the townspeople. Savings from the merger were invested in additional academic offerings. The Wild Cats, both girls and boys teams, took us to some state championships, and our Jr. Iron Chef teams became perennial winners. For the first few years, each town continued to operate its own elementary school, but three years ago the elementary schools were merged, and one of the three buildings was eliminated as a school. Our communities have adapted to and embraced our new merged schools.

It is unconscionable that Vermont continues to believe in an education financing structure that results in such onerous burdens on taxpayers in communities that have done the hard work AND which does not even direct resources toward equitable opportunities for Vermont’s children.


What we have not adapted to is the persistent grinding away at our ability to offer equitable opportunity for our children, the very promise of the Brigham decision.

We are communities that took it upon ourselves to consolidate our small schools, completing the work that is now being required of all communities by Act 46. Yes, we did expand opportunities for our kids in the early days, but the relentless effects of our education financing system have continued to erode much of the early gains in academic offerings.

Act 60, later amended by Act 68, has brought equity to taxpayers statewide, meaning that a penny on the tax rate raises the same amount in every town. But that equity does not achieve fairness when it results in such large increases in property tax rates to people in towns that have done the hard work to consolidate and reduced spending as every governor since Act 60 has asked. And, more importantly, much more importantly, it does not achieve equitable education opportunity for our students.

Clearly consolidation alone is not the solution. Isn’t it time for a deep dive into our education financing system, to take a hard look at why economy of scale is the driving force in the distribution of funds, why per pupil spending is the driving element when it is nothing more than a mathematical calculation and tells us nothing about opportunities available to children in schools with the same per pupil spending? It is unconscionable that Vermont continues to believe in an education financing structure that results in such onerous burdens on taxpayers in communities that have done the hard work AND which does not even direct resources toward equitable opportunities for Vermont’s children.

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  • David Schoales

    Thanks Ann. Unfortunately, it seems no one under the golden bubble is listening. The education special interest lobbyists have their ears.

  • Bill Dunnington

    What a good idea – time for a deep look and significant change.

  • Mary Daly

    Education funding seems to be more about personnel, salaries and benefits to the bloated staff than programs for the children they are there to serve. The Department of Education is a major piece of the problem. They advance new ideas, requiring more funding just to feel good about their jobs. Then there is the NEA.! The more staff they coerce into joining their union, the happier they are. Who is working for the best education for the children, I ask.

  • Tom Haviland

    All this in my opinion is just fiddling around the edges.

    You can’t solve cost and affordability issues unless you solve health care cost inflation.

    That’s the fundamental issue. It drives both education cost increases as health care costs rise for district and state employees and at the same time pushes down taxpayers ability to pay for education as more and more of their compensation is tied up in paying for their own health care.

    Solve health care and all this goes away.

  • Edward Letourneau

    The way to fix education spending is to change the collection mechanism to a separate income tax applied equally to all citizens, and limit the state spending to provide english, math, civics and science. If local communities want to spend more for other programs and electives they have to tax themselves for it — and collect that through a local and equal education income tax. That will make people think before voting yes on budgets. We also need a regents-type diploma that means something.

  • Jay Eshelman

    Per pupil spending tells us everything ‘…about opportunities available to children’, if anyone cares to open their eyes and sharpen their pencils. It’s called calculating a ‘cost/benefit ratio’.

    The problem is that education administrators, and the legislators who appoint them, refuse to accept responsibility for the success of their endeavors by maligning any attempt to measure their productivity. Children aren’t widgets, schools aren’t businesses,…..we’ve heard it again and again.

    First, they bemoan spending scrutiny, as the above sentiment shows us.

    Second, they refuse to quantify the results of that spending by not accepting any standard of measurement, lauding on one hand NAEP academic comparisons (a dubious report of success at best) and belittling the State performance data showing that nearly half of Vermont’s K-12 students don’t meet minimum standards.

    It’s clear that the only way education administrators and the legislators who appoint them can manage ‘equitable opportunities for Vermont’s children’ is to consolidate all of our schools, doubling down on one-size-fits-all pedagogy, while eliminating alternatives. If there’s only one school of thought from which to choose, there is , of course, ‘equitable opportunity’.

    Meanwhile affluent families send their kids to private schools or home school, or they leave (or stay away from) Vermont altogether. Vermont’s enrollments are down 20%. My local school district enrollments have dropped 40% since my kids were in school.

    But hey, these are “… nothing more than a mathematical calculation and tells us nothing about opportunities available to children in schools…”. Go figure. Not!

    • John Grady

      “My local school district enrollments have dropped 40%”

      My guess is many schools have lost half the students and it’s never mentioned.

      A school near me cut the budget 10% and not a peep about it ?
      $400,000 cut and not local news ? How many jobs where cut ?

      The only way to fix the mess is for starters switch to county school systems and combine a few of the smallest counties and become a Right to Work State.

      Part of education should be learning problem solving skills. How come none of the college graduates in the state can set an example for the children by showing them how problems are solved ? The last bunch of kids sure didn’t learn how to solve problems. If they aren’t throwing tantrums they are looking for a safe space to hide from problems or sticking needles in their arms to try an avoid dealing with life. They are a product of the system so it should be evident major change is needed.

    • Edward Letourneau

      Vermont is actually doing worst than the average if we use the national graduation rate. The national average is 81%. The Vermont average is 83%, however the national graduation rate for white students is 87% (and Vermont is 99% white). — The Department of Ed and administrators will tell is its because of the number of poor in Vermont, and there is an element of truth in that, but it falls apart when you look at Catholic schools where 98% of the students are from families below the poverty line — and they produce graduation rates of 99%. The obvious question is what are they doing that we are not?

      • Jay Eshelman

        “An estimated 7,874 students entered high school in 2006 and all but 675 completed it by 2010. This puts Vermont’s graduation rate at 91.4 percent, well above the national median— 78.6 percent.”

        Despite Vermont’s high graduation rate (highest in the nation by some accounts), fewer than half of those graduates go on to post secondary education and 40% of those who do go to college require remedial instruction before taking their college courses – dropping out of college, on average, after two years.

        But again, this is “… nothing more than a mathematical calculation and tells us nothing about opportunities available to children in schools…”……especially the opportunity to successfully compete in the labor market after they graduate.

        • Edward Letourneau

          The US Dept. of Education has a different number. In the end we will know more in a couple of years as data for the standardized tests give us more accurate rankings across states. — In the end the numbers don’t tell us if we have a quality system or good numbers or average numbers because of lower graduation standards.

      • Jeanne Provencher Norris

        They are probably not paying outragous salaries and Health Benefits to their teachers!! and until Vt wakes up, enrollments will continue to decline as more and more families find Vt unaffordable, and get out of the state!!

        • Edward Letourneau

          Some states expect teachers to handle more than 15 students. Classrooms with 25 to 35 students is not unusual — which means teachers really have have a work plan. they can’t show up and wing it, like you can with 10 or 12. So the costs are lower. One other things I’ve notices is some states don’t push every student towards college because they aren’t all college material — and some state colleges (the Georgia system is one example) expect students to have high school GPA of 3.0 or higher for entry. — I think they have a focus of self-reliance and learning, as opposed to participation trophies.

  • Dan Normandeau

    It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is to me none-the-less, how so many humans act like lemmings and follow the propaganda issued by the lobbyists; our legislators included. The ill-effects from Act 46 may not be seen for many years, but they will be seen. The effects on our local, regional and State economies, as well as on our desirability as a State will be everlasting. God bless the republic.

  • rosemariejackowski

    It is a fallacy to believe that education can be ‘fixed’ by just dumping more money on it.
    Increased cost does not always lead to increased quality, especially when dealing with education.

  • Matt Young

    A good start would be dismantling the public education monopoly union, unfortunately they have very skillfully entrenched themselves in our elected officials.