Task force proposes new school funding system for students learning English

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, speaks at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Jan. 7, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A legislative task force has proposed overhauling Vermont’s system for allocating money to schools for students learning English.

The proposals, which were released Friday by a task force examining the state’s K-12 funding system, would create a new grant funding system — often referred to as “categorical aid” — for districts based on how many English language learning students attend school there. 

If implemented, those proposals would mark a significant change from Vermont’s current school funding model. 

“We know that English language learners need more resources,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, the task force’s co-chair. “We know they need really specific resources. We know that we’re fortunate to have a rapidly diversifying state.” 

Under the state’s existing model, local school boards draw up budgets and send them to voters for approval, with the knowledge that the state will foot the entire bill through its Education Fund. 

The system relies on the principle that some students — specifically English language learners, low-income students and rural students — need more school resources to succeed. So when the state counts how many kids attend school in a certain district, those students are assigned a greater weight.  

Local property taxes are then calculated based on a district’s “spending per equalized student.” With more low-income, rural or English-learning students in a district, the local school board can draft a larger budget — without necessarily increasing the tax burden on residents. 

But two years ago, a study commissioned by lawmakers found that the weights assigned to rural, low-income or English-learning students failed to create equitable learning environments and did not “reflect contemporary educational circumstances and costs.” 

In the wake of the study, lawmakers set up a “Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report” to determine recommendations for leveling the playing field. 

On Friday, that task force proposed a different model: a new, nearly $11 million grant program specifically for English language learners, often referred to as ELL.

Under the proposed grant system, ELL students in Vermont school districts would no longer be assigned extra weight in the budgeting process. Instead, school districts would receive grant money directly from the state. 

Any district with at least one ELL student would automatically get a $25,000 grant from the state’s education fund, along with an extra $5,000 per ELL student in the district. The program would cost an estimated $10.7 million.

The logic behind that proposal, Kornheiser said, is to ensure that districts have “the minimum capacity to deliver comprehensive English language learning services and programs for their students.”

For many districts, she said, the extra tax capacity generated by having only a handful of ELL students doesn’t add up. 

“On a per-pupil basis, if a district only has, say, three English language learners, they still won’t be able to get to a capacity tipping point with marginal costs,” she said. 

But some school officials cried foul. The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a team of more than 20 Vermont districts, criticized the task force’s proposal, arguing in a Monday statement the plan would underfund less wealthy school districts.

“Proposals that do not address the weighting formula will not help Vermont’s most struggling school districts,” the coalition said. 

Emily Hecker is the communications and development director at the Winooski School District, which is a member of the coalition. She estimated that the categorical aid program would leave her district — among the most diverse in the state — with $1 million less than it could have raised with an updated weighting system. 

“Unfortunately, the current proposal furthers inequities in Vermont’s education funding system,” Hecker said in an email. 

But Kornheiser said that the task force’s math found that larger, more diverse districts such as Burlington and Winooski would have access to the same amount of money that they would under the weights recommended in the 2019 study. 

Friday’s proposed plan is only a preliminary move. The task force has two months before its final report is due Dec. 15. 

And the body still has to tackle the thorny question of how to allocate funding for low-income and rural students. Kornheiser said the task force is considering tweaking the weights for those categories of students while still creating the grant program for English language learners. 

The group also plans to draft legislation paired with the final report, Kornheiser said. 

Stephanie Yu, a policy analyst with the Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier think tank that advocates for education financing reform, said it was still too soon to assess the task force’s proposal. 

But she said that it was entirely possible that a combination of categorical aid and adjusted student weights could be the best plan. 

“Part of this is how all these pieces hang together,” Yu said, noting that many ELL students are also low-income. “So to look at just one slice of it is tough.” 

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Peter D'Auria

About Peter

Peter D’Auria covers education for VTDigger. Prior to moving to Vermont, he worked for The Jersey Journal, The Chilkat Valley News and Willamette Week. He is originally from Portland, Oregon.

Email: [email protected]

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