Elementary school students head back to class after lunch and recess at the Coventry Village School on Thursday, September 5, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Vermont’s K-12 school funding system is often touted as one of the most progressive systems in the country. But at home in the Green Mountain State, education officials say inequality remains baked in.

Administrators often say, for example, that more affluent districts tend to pay teachers the best, while schools with the neediest kids see higher turnover and less-experienced educators.

To see if that holds true, VTDigger analyzed data from the Agency of Education on average teacher salaries and student poverty in every public school in Vermont. 

Though the data doesn’t show a perfect linear relationship, there is a clear trend. The best-paid teachers – many clustered in Chittenden County – are generally found in the districts with the lowest concentrations of poverty.

There are some interesting outliers. Burlington’s schools, notably, have higher percentages of children on free-and-reduced lunch than the rest of the state, but its teachers also make far more. One Queen City elementary, the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes, had an average teacher salary topping $74,000 last year; 68% of its students were on free-and-reduced lunch.  

But even within Chittenden County, the district with the highest overall rates of poverty – Winooski – is also the one with the lowest pay. Teachers in the Onion City made, on average, $62,362 last year. Nearby districts all paid well over $10,000 more. In South Burlington, the average wage topped $80,000.

Nicole Mace, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said it would be worthwhile to analyze whether there are geographic patterns at play – urban districts, and districts along the I-89 corridor, are generally believed to pay better.

“It’s a good thing to call attention to. And I think it’s complicated,” she said.

Geography is certainly key for Beth O’Brien, the principal of the Richford Junior/Senior High School. The average teacher salary in the district is $49,629, far below the statewide average of $60,650. The low pay, coupled with the fact that Richford is within easy commuting distance to the Burlington area, means the district has a tough time getting educators to stick around. 

“I have said for years that we are a training ground for Chittenden County,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien said younger, less experienced recruits can certainly bring something to the table that veterans can’t. But it’s tough on kids to see their teachers rotate through so quickly, and it’s difficult for schools to work toward long-term goals when a new crop of teachers needs to be caught up each year. The labor market for teachers is also particularly tight right now, which means the district often has to hire candidates on a provisional license.

“It’s a moral imperative to have the right people in the classroom,” she said.

O’Brien’s own career also reflects how poorer, rural districts struggle to recruit and retain talent. 

The veteran educator is from the area, and has worked in the supervisory union for three decades as a teacher and administrator. She had just taken the principal’s post at Richford’s middle-high school when the district came up empty on a search for a leader at the elementary school. So she did both jobs — for three years.

Don Tinney, the president of the VT-NEA, cautioned against equating teacher pay with quality. He said he’d like to see data on retention, as well as how often educators are properly licensed. The state is reporting precisely this information on its new Annual Snapshot, but licensing data won’t be released until December.

“If the pay disparity contributes to students being educated by teachers who aren’t adequately prepared, that’s something we have to address,” he said.

Jay Nichols, the executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, said the trend at play is less severe than it was before Act 60, the state’s landmark education funding reform. 

But he said salary data was “absolutely” an indicator resources still aren’t being targeted where they’re most needed. The neediest students should be taught by the most expert teachers — not the other way around.

Montpelier High School hallway
Montpelier High School. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

“It’s a tougher job – yet you’re getting paid less,” he said. “It’s almost that it should be the inverse of what it is.”

Former State Board of Education chair Krista Huling, a teacher in South Burlington, wasn’t attracted to the urban amenities that administrators often say exacerbate the migration of talent from rural districts to Chittenden County. She still lives in the Lamoille County town of Cambridge, and she noted her daughter will likely eventually attend Lamoille Union High School, where she once taught.

But the raise Huling got when she moved to South Burlington allowed her to pay off her student loans and her husband to go to graduate school. Meanwhile, her job got simpler. 

“It’s easier to teach in affluent districts,” she said. “I can speak from experience.”

Huling emphasized that she’d loved working at Lamoille Union. But without having to worry nearly as much about whether students were coming to class properly fed, housed, and clothed, she said she was better able to drill down on academics.

“How do we create equity in this state when we have these incentives?” Huling said.

VTDigger's political reporter.

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