Another Fine School Funding Mess

Hey folks, it’s time for another round of every lawmaker’s least favorite game: Reforming the state’s public school funding system!

This time, lawmakers are considering a 2019 UVM report on “pupil weighting.” Some students tend to cost more to educate, including special needs kids, New Americans and people living in poverty. Vermont weights the pupil count so school funding better reflects the needs of a district’s students. But the 2019 report concluded that Vermont’s current pupil weighting system is so off-kilter that it’s vulnerable to a legal challenge a la the Brigham decision.

(For those just joining us, in 1997 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state is responsible for providing substantially equal educational opportunity to all students. In response, the Legislature adopted Act 60, which established funding and pupil-weighting systems designed to comply with the ruling. That weighting system is still with us today.)

And if there’s anything lawmakers like less than making a tough decision, it’s letting the courts make that decision.

And for his part, Education Secretary Dan French is trying to keep himself and his agency out of the process as much as possible.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Education and Finance Committees held a joint hearing to take testimony on S.13 — a bill that would require the Education Agency to devise a plan for implementing the report’s recommendations. There was universal agreement that the state needs to do something to make pupil weighting more equitable. And that’s where the universal agreement ended.

French testified, as did school board members from two districts that get the short end in the current weighting system. Vicki Capitani, chair of the Dover Selectboard, described the “20-year educational injustice” of the Act 60 weighting system.

The UVM report, she said, found “that almost all of the rural isolated mountain school districts surrounding the Town of Dover are underweighted.” Jamaica by 22%, Readsboro by 28%. Area high schools are also at a disadvantage; Brattleboro was shortchanged by 15%, and Bennington by 14%.

“Act 60 cost a lot of towns a lot of money,” she concluded. “There hasn’t been an answer for small rural districts. We’re hanging on by the skin of our teeth.”

As are urban districts with large populations of New Americans or children in poverty. Alex Yin of the Winooski school board said that under the current weighting system, the pupil count is around 1,000. Under the proposed new formula, Winooski’s count would be around 1,600. Because of that underweighting, he said, the district has had to cut corners such as not providing bus service, and has developed a hefty list of deferred maintenance needs.

Sen. Thomas Chittenden, who resides in South Burlington, worried that his district would lose out in the new system. He agreed with the need to update the formula, but said it should be done in “a thoughtful, phased manner.”

To which Yin responded, “It’s difficult, but we’ve been disadvantaged for 20 years.” Or, put it another way, justice delayed is justice denied. He urged lawmakers to adopt the new system “now.”

Capitani allowed for the possibility of phasing in the new weighting system. Secretary French, while preaching deliberateness, said that the state might be able to use federal Covid relief dollars to jumpstart the process.

French fully endorsed the need for change. But he said the approach should be more deliberate than needy districts would like. And, he added, the implementation plan should be devised by lawmakers or a special commission — not by his agency. “Our capability is strictly technical,” he said, adding that he didn’t want to get into political decisions.

Gosh, I hadn’t realized that administration agencies don’t make political decisions. That’s a new one.

French also noted the UVM report could not find a “real mathematical basis”
for the current weighting system. He speculated that it was devised in haste, as lawmakers rushed to meet the demands of the Brigham decision.

However the timing works out, it’s likely that Yin won’t be getting his wish. As written, S.13 would order French to propose an implementation plan for the new weighting system by mid-December. The Legislature would consider the plan in the 2022 session. At the earliest. French would prefer that the responsibility be delegated to “an independent entity,” such as a special commission, with the same deadline date.

(Late add: The House version, H.54, would take immediate effect. They didn’t say so in the hearing, but doubtless Yin and Capitani would prefer that version to S.13.)

The biggest change proposed by the UVM team is a dramatic rise in pupil weighting for economically disadvantaged students. The current weight is 0.25%; the proposed weight is around 3%. If that’s the size of the inequity, I can see why the current system is ripe for a lawsuit. If the Legislature delays action, one person advocating for new weights told me, “It may come to that.”

Clock’s ticking.

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