All around the country school systems are struggling with how to keep costs down in these tight budgetary times, while also ensuring a quality education for their students. Vermont is no different in that respect, but while other school districts are striving to keep class sizes down, here in Vermont the challenge is just the oppose: class sizes are too small.
As such, a recent report from the Agency of Education is recommending that class sizes in four key subjects -- English, math, science and social studies -- do not go below a certain minimum, according to a recent report from VTDigger.
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 presented to the House Ways & Means Committee earlier this month 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, VTDigger reports. Brad James, AOE's education finance manager, said that staffing costs typically comprise about 70 percent to 80 percent of school budgets.
James said he expected the data would show a preponderance of 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.
What this all means for education policy in Vermont is unclear. James says more consistent data is needed to answer some of the questions lawmakers ask in the course of crafting education policy, so he asked lawmakers to write more specific data reporting requirements into state law.
Whatever the committee decides, James suggested delaying implementation for one year to conform to the calendar cycle of school budgets. Rather than issue tax penalties for noncompliance in 2016-17, James said data should be collected first to inform tax penalty proposals the following year.
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.
In the meantime, school districts throughout Vermont need to give more serious thought to consolidating small schools to reduce per-pupil costs. This wouldn't necessarily mean a drastic increase in the number of students in the classroom -- because we certainly don't want the pendulum to swing in the complete opposite direction -- but it would reduce administrative overhead. That could help reduce Vermont's average spending per pupil rate without sacrificing educational quality.