This commentary is by Marc B. Schauber of Dover, executive director of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity.
For more than two decades now, many people suspected the pupil weights being used to determine each district’s portion of the Vermont education fund were incorrect. The Pupil Weighting Factors Report, authored by the University of Vermont and Rutgers University and delivered to the Legislature in 2019, confirmed this.
As a legislative task force meets ahead of the next legislative session to try to solve this glaring inequity, it seems as though most stakeholders agree that the problem is enormous. Exactly how to solve it, though, has become a point of contention.
Districts that have been seriously harmed by the flawed formula are advocating for its complete correction, as recommended by researchers from UVM and Rutgers. Correcting the formula will act as a mechanism to redistribute the massive education fund so that small schools and low-income, rural and diverse districts finally receive their fair share of education funds.
Public Assets Institute, an organization run by the architects of the current, inequitable system, are instead advocating for a Band-Aid approach, which would add money to the education fund in the form of unreliable grants, or categorical aid, targeted at harmed districts.
The goal here seems to be to protect the interests of wealthier communities, by avoiding redistributing existing funds and instead adding additional money to the system, resulting in a tax increase for everyone, even the harmed districts.
Categorical aid, as we’ve seen with the small schools and transportation grants, add administrative costs and burden, especially to those districts that run the leanest business offices due to insufficient resources. Districts cannot count on these grants or, at best, cannot count on the amount of the grant year over year. Perhaps the current Legislature will create a good product that helps districts.
But there is no way to guarantee that the next Legislature will maintain the grant amounts, their purpose or the criteria for qualifying for them. This makes planning, including the hiring of staff, extremely difficult. And the UVM study has an empirical basis for setting the weights. What empirical basis would be used to determine how to establish categorical aid amounts?
Equity should be a shared goal for all Vermonters. But as Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “To those accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” And because of this, we understand that some wealthier districts will feel as though they are being asked to make sacrifices.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. If the weights are finally corrected to reflect the actual costs of educating different types of learners, wealthier, mostly white districts will have to operate differently.
This won’t be a guaranteed tax increase for any district, though. That is within each district’s control. They can choose to reduce some programming, develop creative ways to do more with less, they can raise their property taxes or some combination thereof. But by correcting the weights, the playing field will finally be level for everyone.
In addition, Vermont is currently sitting on a huge influx of federal funds. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve the equity that the Vermont Supreme Court ruled was required in the 1997 Brigham v. State decision, utilizing federal funds to help overweight districts mitigate the changes as they work through the process of adjusting their budgets.
These one-time funds will not be there if this task force fails to recommend full implementation of the expert recommendations and the Legislature fails to pass legislation to do so, in 2022. Carpe Diem!
Implementation of the weights is simple. It’s a matter of plugging what we now know are the correct weights into the formula we already use. Use of categorical aid would require designing a whole separate system, adding layers of bureaucracy and added expense.
Failure to create a plan to implement the University of Vermont and Rutgers University recommendations will allow Vermont’s most impoverished, rural, small and multicultural districts to continue being harmed. Isn’t two decades long enough?