Two bills are moving through the Legislature that directly impact the education fund, bills which acting together seem to cancel each other out and are therefore most troubling to me. One is H.538, which through several strategies seeks to contain spending on education thus also constrain increases in property taxes. It extends eligibility for partial property tax rebate for household incomes over $90,000 by increasing the house site value from $200,000 to $250,000; for renters it lowers the percentage of allowable gross rent that can be claimed for rebate from 21 percent to 19 percent; it lowers the maximum property tax adjustment for everyone from $8,000 to $6,000. It lowers the excess school spending penalty threshold from the current 125 percent of statewide average spending to 121 percent over two years; and more. The bill originally included elimination of small schools grants over 4 years, but there was so much push back that this element was reduced to a study. (Yes, Virginia, lobbying from the folks back home works!)
The intended purpose of this bill was to reduce education property taxes, and the net effect of the various elements is expected to reduce property tax revenue to the education fund by about a half a cent on the statewide property tax rate in FY2015. The only way the education fund formula knows how to restrain property taxes is to reduce education spending or shift who pays within the fund.
The other bill that is being debated in the House is H.270 which will mandate 10 hours per week of pre-K for 3 and 4 year olds in a school or qualified child care setting. On the substance, there is substantial research that shows that early childhood education not only benefits the child him or herself by showing better outcomes throughout subsequent school years, but also shows over the long run that education costs, especially special education costs, are lower. Previous legislation enabled schools to begin such programs either in their own schools or by contracting with a qualified childcare provider, and several towns in our area saw the merits and did begin such programs, even though a new cost was added to education. In fact voters in 84 percent of Vermont towns also agreed to the better outcomes for students, and were willing to spend more to achieve them.
Those costs are now baked into the overall state spending on education that H.538 seeks to contain.
What could be wrong with extending this opportunity to all children in Vermont? Until H.270, the goals of the state and of a very large percentage of towns were in alignment, demonstrating the best of how local control can work, how the partnership between state and local districts does move toward improving outcomes for kids. However, H.270 no longer enables, it mandates and in the process adds about $1 million in education spending, at the same time H.538 seeks to reduce education spending.
Another way that H.270 is troubling to me is that the control of where a child gets to spend these education tax dollars is in the hands of the parents through a voucher like system. Why is this a problem? The underlying framework of Act 60/68 distributes money on a per pupil basis. The other side of that coin is that schools, and in this case also private childcare providers, receive revenue on a per child basis and thus have a need for a certain number of students just to keep the doors open and the lights on. For pre-K programs already in existence, whether in a school or a private childcare facility, the ability of the public dollars to be transported away from the programs already in place puts the sustainability of those programs in question.
We have about two weeks left of this legislative session and more controversial bills yet to consider. Thank you to all who have shared with me your views. Your comments do help me to see all sides of an issue.
Rep. Ann Manwaring represents Halifax, Whitingham and Wilmington and is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. She can be contacted at 802-464-2150 or firstname.lastname@example.org.