Legislators react to education funding report

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Local legislators are expressing a desire to move forward with changes to the state's education funding system in light of a recent report.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the Pupil Weighting Factors Report confirms the inequities he has been seeing in several school districts in his senatorial district.

"It should provide us with the documentation to begin to make needed changes in the funding system," he said of the report in an email. "Of course that's easier said than done whenever you try to take on the `Education Establishment.' I'm in hopes that working together, we can begin to make sure we have equity throughout Vermont."

He added that he hopes that doesn't take another Brigham decision, in reference to a 1997 state Supreme Court ruling in Brigham v. State of Vermont, which found the then-existing funding program unconstitutional due to disparities in education spending between towns with higher and lower property values, according to the report.

Sears also said he was surprised by the report's thoroughness.

When reached Tuesday, Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said the Senate Committee on Education is looking into a possible phased-in approach to the changes recommended in the report.

"It is complicated," Campion said. "It's going to take time. I certainly think a phased-in approach sounds like the right approach."

Campion said that he recalls some areas in Bennington County that would benefit from the proposed changes.

"It's recognizing that some students, perhaps students in rural districts, students of poverty .. those are things that might take more of an investment, more of a financial investment," he said.

The Vermont Legislature commissioned the report, which was released on Dec. 24 and required under Act 173. The Act was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott in 2018.

In an effort to be more equitable, the state's existing school funding formula accounts for differences in educational costs across districts by recognizing three cost factors: student poverty, limited English proficiency, and secondary-level education. Weights are assigned to these factors in equalized pupil calculations.

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The number of equalized pupils in a district is used to create an equalized per pupil spending amount for each district.

This is a key input when calculating local education tax rates.

The authors of the report state that for the most part, the factors and weights used in the equalized pupil calculation have not been updated in more than 20 years "despite the significant changes in statewide demographics and student need that have transpired during that time."

The authors found "clear evidence that districts located in Vermont's most sparsely populated areas must spend more to provide similar educational opportunities as those found in districts located in more populated areas of the state." They recommended a new weight accounting for population density of the host community.

The report also recommends existing weights be changed for poverty rate and percentage of English Language Learner (ELL) students.

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The existing weight for pre-kindergarten students, at .46, was not recommended for change.

The authors recommend a significant change to the poverty rate weight — from .25 to 2.97.

The recommended weights were derived for each cost factor using national, regional and state data, and they reflect the actual level of additional spending required to ensure students with different learning needs and schools in varying contexts can provide similar educational opportunities, according to the report.

Any change would impact all communities.

That is, assuming fiscal 2018 budgeted spending, for some districts changes to the equalized pupil calculation may cause tax rates to increase, and in others, the rates may decrease, according to the report.

The bottom line is that this study suggested a pattern of weights that are based on "actual current cost variations, unlike the weights currently in effect," said Rep. Cynthia Browning, of the Bennington-4 House district, in an email.

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She also mentioned a need to phase in adjustments, in order to avoid increases in education property taxes in some districts that would be hard to absorb.

The report clearly concludes that for two decades, the state has been using a flawed funding mechanism that doesn't fairly account for the higher cost of educating rural and low-income students in particular, said Rep. Kathleen James, of the Bennington-4 House district, in an email.

"There's no doubt we need to fix this problem," she said.. "But it's a complex issue, with profound implications for school budgets across the state. When we correct the weights, there will be winners and there will be losers, and there will be very real impacts and consequences. So we need to get it right."

Rep. David Durfee, of the Bennington-3 House district, said he hopes legislation will also address the fact that high school juniors and seniors who are taking advantage of the estate's early college program are not being counted in a district's average daily membership, which can result in a lower equalized pupil count and by extension, higher per-pupil spending and local tax rates.

He said the report also mentions a growing need for mental health services, and that's something that may not be covered by weighting factors, he said.

"Trauma and mental health issues will continue to put pressures on school spending," he said.

Vermont's current funding system, implemented through Act 60 (1997), Act 68 (2004) and Act 130 (2010), was designed to resolve issues of taxpayer equity and disparities in per-pupil spending.

Although school budgets are approved by local voters, local education spending is funded through a statewide Education Fund, which, among other sources, includes pooled revenues from local education-related property and income taxes.

The state's existing policy largely relies on localities to make adjustments to their budgets for cost factors; the state adjusts for differences in costs through categorical grants, which provide supplemental funding for specific programs or services, and weighting a district's average daily membership for cost factors.

The district's weighted membership is used to equalize local per-pupil spending for the purpose of calculating local tax rates.

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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