Campaign for Vermont education spending tool not wrong, but different, state says

MONTPELIER -- Several Democratic lawmakers are questioning the accuracy of a new education data portal released earlier this week by Campaign for Vermont, a Montpelier think tank.

The tool shows per pupil spending rates that top $30,000 in several instances. The Campaign for Vermont rates are significantly higher than the rates typically reported by the Vermont Agency of Education.

Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans, says the data, which assigns a per pupil spending rate of $30,859 to his district high school, Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans, is "totally inaccurate." The Agency of Education reports a per pupil rate of $14,325 per student at the academy in fiscal year 2014.

"I applaud the Campaign for Vermont for their effort to shine light on education spending, but erroneous data causes confusion," McCarthy wrote in a commentary submitted to VTDigger. "Misinformation is worse than no information at all. I encourage everyone to educate themselves as to the real spending at each of our schools. Furthermore, we should all look beyond test scores to outcomes like employment, graduation rates, and college enrollment as evidence of value for our education tax dollars."

Campaign for Vermont's Education Research Tool compares per pupil spending rates across school districts. The figures are based on total overall budget costs (including tech center programs and federally funded programs) divided by a student "head count" derived from average daily membership totals. It also compares standardized test scores across school districts.

The Agency of Education typically bases per pupil spending rates on Education Fund spending by the state and municipalities divided by equalized per-pupil counts, which are weighted to include cost factors such as English as a Second Language, high school attendance and students in poverty.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, majority whip of the House, also complained that the data "didn't relate to people's pocketbooks" because it includes federal funding for school spending.

Tom Pelham, a co-founder of the Campaign for Vermont and former tax commissioner, said the overall budget data used by the Education Research Tool is identical to the total school spending amount voters will see on ballots this coming Town Meeting Day.

Pelham argues that the "head count" information is more accurate than the Agency of Education's "equalized pupil" measure. The average voter, he said, doesn't know what an equalized pupil is.

The Education Research Tool data is from the Agency of Education.

Brad James, a fiscal expert with the agency, said what the Campaign for Vermont is "trying to do is not wrong, it's different. It's not a number people have seen before."

James said it would have been helpful if the Campaign for Vermont had included a note explaining the difference between the Education Research Tool data and information on the Agency of Education website.

"What they're trying to get is the total dollar spent per pupil," James said. "That's why they're using the total budget numbers and the average daily minimum (a daily student count) as a proxy for kids."

Pelham says the information the campaign published is of value to voters, and it was "not put out for political purposes."

The average statewide per pupil spending rate was $18,571 in fiscal year 2013, using DOE methodology. The national average was about $11,068 last year, according to a report from the National Education Association.


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