MONTPELIER -- A first-of-its-kind look at student-staff ratios across grade levels in Vermont offers some insights into education costs, and also raises plenty of questions. Namely: what to do with all the information.

The report from the Agency of Education recommends minimum course sizes across grade levels for four main learning categories: English, math, science and social studies. Up to eighth grade, the smallest class sizes should be 10 students at schools of 150 children or more; at schools with fewer students, classes should consist of no less than five children, the report says. The minimum class size would be 10 for schools with grades 5-8, or any school up to 12th grade.

Vermont has the lowest ratio in the nation, with an average student-to-teacher ratio of 9.4 to 1, according to a 2013 report from the National Education Association. The national average is 16 to 1. Vermont also has the second highest average spending per pupil rate, $18,571, in the country. (New York State is No. 1.)

The report was presented Friday morning to the House Ways & Means Committee, as required by Act 60 of 2013.

The report, which includes separate ratios of students to teachers, school staff and administrators, reaffirmed some conventional wisdom about Vermont education: There are a "wicked" lot of small schools, as Rep. Jeffrey Wilson, D-Manchester, put it.

That translates into small class sizes typically, which in turn tends to drive up the cost of education. Brad James, AOE's education finance manager, said in an interview after his presentation that staffing costs -- salaries and compensation -- typically comprise about 70 percent to 80 percent of school budgets.

James said he expected the data would show a preponderance of a small classes, but he was surprised by the degree to which that proved true: By far, he found, the smallest schools account for the most courses with the fewest students.

Observations to actions

Committee members appeared nowhere near ready Friday morning to formulate legislation based on the recommendations.

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the committee, said it was helpful to know that new Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe signed off on the report. She is looking forward to hearing Gov. Peter Shumlin's thoughts on the matter.

Whatever the committee decides, James suggested they delay implementation for one year to conform to the calendar cycle of school budgets. Rather than issue tax penalties for non-compliance in 2016-17, James said data should be collected first to inform tax penalty proposals the following year.

James also noted Vermont's unique struggle with class size. Education finance experts who spoke at a related symposium earlier in January said they had never encountered another state struggling to establish a minimum number of students per course. Most places debate a cap to set a maximum class size, James said.

His recommendations to that end are based more on existing practices than academically proven "best practices," James said. The data work alone to produce the ratio report was so intensive that he did not have time to conduct research into optimum class size.

James asked lawmakers to write more specific data reporting requirements into state law.

The state's Agency of Education has been gathering more detailed data from schools in recent years to comply with both federal regulations and state mandates. But James said reporting remains inconsistent, and without more reliable data, it will be hard to answer some of the questions lawmakers ask in the course of crafting education policy.

He also acknowledged that the data points in the ratio report -- and at the heart of his recommendations -- are not tied to performance outcomes. Correlating ratio and outcome data would constitute months more work, he said. For the time being, James simply based his recommendations on the ratios found in a majority of courses.

The tax incentives would operate on a one-time basis, encouraging schools with average course sizes below the minimum to increase their ratios. The incentives would only kick in for the year that threshold is crossed -- not every year that minimum ratios are exceeded.

Remaining questions

Several questions and hurdles remain before lawmakers will likely be ready to act on the recommendations.

As an example of the "intangibles" the data don't account for, James asked lawmakers to consider a school with low enrollment in one grade or one course during one year. An influx of students may be seen coming down the pike, he said. In that case, it may not make sense to lay off a teacher for just one year, only to rehire or start a new search for the position 12 months later, he suggested.

Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, wants to remove from the dataset classes that are necessarily below recommended minimums -- for example, special education or courses to teach English as a second language.

Ancel also said she'd also like to get a better sense of the specific impact districts would feel if any of the recommendations were adopted.