MONTPELIER — A legislative task force considering potential changes in the way the state allocates money to public schools heard two hours of testimony Wednesday, and the message was unanimous: Update the per-pupil weighting factors, and forget about trying to solve equity with categorical aid.
The hearing, the first of two planned by the Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report, included testimony by many Southern Vermont parents, superintendents, school board members and teachers, as well as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger and Winooski Mayor Kristine Lott, and a significant contingent of Winooski teachers and parents.
The state uses weighting factors to account for the higher costs of educating some children, including those experiencing poverty and new English speakers, in setting per-pupil expenditure targets for school districts. They were established to help address the school funding inequity identified by the Brigham court decision, with the idea that a larger equalized student count would lower education property taxes, allowing districts more capacity to raise money.
But districts across the state — in rural areas as well as cities with significant immigrant populations and poverty levels — have said for years that the current weighting factors do not reflect their fiscal reality. A 2019 University of Vermont study, chartered by the Legislature, found the weighting factors were not based on empirical evidence and prescribed new weights.
Rebekah Silver of Winooski pointed out that South Burlington has 14 advanced placement classes, compared to only one at Winooski.
“Those incorrect weights aren’t just buying more academic resources,” she said. “They’re also buying extracurricular activities and sports options.”
In Burlington, said Jason Van Driesche, the schools are “constantly scrambling to meet a giant range of needs and don’t have resources to do it in spite of the fact we pay pretty high taxes. ... It’s pretty obvious what we’ve got now is neither fair nor sustainable.”
Speakers at Wednesday’s hearing said the weights would assure a more equitable distribution of education funds. They said it would be fairer than categorical aid because it would not be subject to politics, or whether state revenues were lean or robust.
“The numbers should speak for themselves now and into the future,” said Marlboro School Board member Douglas Korb. “Let the numbers do the part of being impartial.”
Conspicuous by their absence were opponents to adopting the weights, or proponents of using categorical aid — dollars earmarked for certain budget needs — in lieu of adjusting the weights.
The issue is politically sensitive because changing the weights is likely to change education property taxes throughout Vermont. That means taxes would likely increase in towns that have been overweighted, and those communities could face harsh choices about tax rates, programs and staffing.
Conversely, speakers from underweighted districts said the manner in which they use the new taxing capacity should not be micromanaged any more than overweighted districts’ spending has been scrutinized.
The 50 or so speaking slots that were available for the hearing filled up the previous Friday, task force co-chair Rep. Emilie Kornheiser said. Another hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Oct. 20.
Several speakers, including Rutland Area NAACP President Mia Schultz of Bennington and the Rev. Jeremy Kirk of West Dover, said improved equity in education funding would also address social and racial inequity in Vermont.
Schultz, who also serves as catalyst leadership coordinator for Rights & Democracy Vermont, said she was addressing the topic as the mother of three Black high school students and as “a champion for equity for all in Vermont.”
She urged the task force, whose members include Kornheiser, D-Windham 2-3, and Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4, to apply the new weights proposed by the study, which would dramatically increase the weighting factor for students in poverty and add a weighting factor for rural districts.
“The current educational system is inequitable, and I’m asking you to fix the funding formula,” she said.
Kirk, the pastor at the West Dover Congregational Church, said that his ministry brings him into the homes of many poor children in the Deerfield Valley. When those are not loving homes, poverty is the main factor, along with abuse and substance misuse, he said.
“For many of these children, school is a refuge and frankly their best shot at positive socialization and access to resources that can help them pursue healthy and happy lives as Vermonters,” Kirk said.
The UVM study is clear, Kirk said, and “I simply ask that you respond to its conclusive findings by putting money that has been withheld from these communities where it has been owed. The damage done to these communities by an inequitable allocation of funds in the past took a long time to do its damage, so quick and impermanent fixes now will not repair the damage done in these communities,” Kirk said. “For this reason, I ask you to please consider not using categorical funding as a remedy. Give the justly weighted funds directly to the communities that have been unfairly funded in the past.”
The new weights proposed in the UVM study, led by associate professor Tammy Kolbe, would dramatically increase the weighting factor for students in poverty, and introduce a new factor for rural school districts.