Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

MONTPELIER — The Senate Education Committee on Friday voted to approve its version of per-pupil weighting reform, an approach that, if successful, will establish a task force to set the parameters for setting an implementation plan in 2022.

The bill, S. 13 is now a “strike-all” amendment that puts a panel of four lawmakers and two state education officials in charge of determining a path forward — and possibly changing the weights. It passed the six-member committee unanimously.

Senate Education Committee members have emphasized in hearings that their bill is intended as an implementation vehicle rather than delaying action on the weights. On the other side of the argument, advocates say the current system is perpetuating inequity and hurting kids because of where they live, and delay in implementing the new factors makes a bad system worse.

Committee Chairperson Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, is adamant that the Senate bill is an implementation plan and not an intentional delay.

“And I would simply say is that you do not want to have buyer’s remorse. We want to do something but we want to understand what we’re doing,” he said.

The Senate bill still allows the six-person task force it creates to consider the weights, but within the context of “an action plan and proposed legislation to ensure that all public school students have equitable access to educational opportunities.” It still allows the task force to “modify or create” the weights and consider “whether any weights should be eliminated in lieu of categorical aid.”

That’s a key difference from H. 54, which presents the weights as determined by a University of Vermont study and lays out how they’re to be applied.

The per-pupil weighting system is the means by which Vermont attempts to address the higher costs of educating some students. But a study of the weighting factors, undertaken by the University of Vermont at the Legislature’s behest in 2019, showed the existing weight factors are inadequate, and suggested adding factors for rural students and greatly increasing the factors for students in poverty.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Rural districts, and districts with significant populations of students from economically disadvantaged households or English language learners, have been pushing for the adoption of the new weights as an education equity issue. The current weights, advocates say, result in districts having to cut spending and raise taxes.

The task force “is not going to put [weights] on the back burner,” Campion said. “And also remember categorical grants guarantee that students would get these funds … there is no guarantee that [districts] will reinvest those dollars. … That is something that gets lost in this conversation over and over and over again.”

Categorial aid could be direct funding to districts for targeted spending items such as transportation, or literacy programs, Campion said. He said such aid would not rely upon local school district votes, while the new weights offer little guarantees that districts will approve school budgets, especially if property taxes increase.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, the lead sponsor of H. 54, doesn’t discount the value of direct aid. But that aid should accompany the new weighting factors, not replace them, she said.

“We have to rebase the formula with correct weights,” Sibilia said. “We can also address some non-systemic issues with categorical aid.”

While S. 13 was voted out of committee Friday, H. 54 remains before the House Education Committee.

The draft approved by the committee adds language that pins the General Assembly down on addressing the weights in 2022.

“It is the intent of the General Assembly that it pass legislation during the second year of the biennium that implements changes to how education is funded to ensure that all public school students have equitable access to educational opportunities,” the bill now reads. “A positive vote of both the House and Senate, and approval by the Governor, would be required to implement these changes.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.