MONTPELIER — The Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors, having spent months trying to figure out how to improve equity in public school funding, has come up with two plans to get there: a newly-derived set of weights, or a “cost equity payment” system that would scrap the weights entirely and provide funding to districts based on educational costs.
What happens next is up to the Legislature to decide.
The task force, which is co-chaired by state Rep. Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro and Sen. Ruth Hardy D-Addison, and includes Rep. Kathleen James of Manchester, met for the final time Friday to discuss its draft report. It voted unanimously to accept it, with revisions it discussed.
“The very first thing I would hope is that taxpayers all around the state know we all have a shared stake in working towards greater educational and taxpayer equity for all of us,” James said Friday. “The whole point behind having a statewide education fund is that we’re all in this to educate all our kids.”
Doing right by those children “is where this conversation needs to start,” she added.
Because the data for the cost equity formula is still being reviewed by a team led by University of Vermont professor Tammy Kolbe, lawmakers advised against reading into the results too closely. That said, the figures provided in the draft report, while not final, indicate the majority of southern Vermont school districts would see reduced education property taxes using either approach.
Firmer numbers should become available next year, as school budgets come into focus and the Legislature reaches a decision about which model to pursue, James said.
Kornheiser, the vice-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said earlier this week that the cost equity formula “removes the distortions about weight being worth more or less in different areas. It better acknowledges that it costs ‘this much’ to educate students.”
Changing the proposed poverty weight in the report “is one significant shift we made and had to get the weights remodeled because of that,” Kornheiser explained. “If we are going to make significant change let’s be sure significant change isn’t going to further inequity for another generation,” she said.
The state uses weighting factors to account for the fact that educating some students — such as high school students and children experiencing poverty — costs more. But the UVM report revealed that the weighting factors, which date back to before the Brigham ruling revamped school funding in Vermont, were not based on empirical evidence. It offered new alternatives.
That matters because under the formula, lower student enrollment results in higher equalized per-pupil expenditures, driving up property tax rates. Without enough taxing capacity, districts face tough budget choices on programs and resources, and tough votes on Town Meeting Day.
That verified what the state’s urban and rural districts had said for years: that underweighting had limited their taxing capacity and caused harm to students who didn’t get the same resources as overweighted districts.
The poverty weight recommended by Kolbe in a 2019 report to the Legislature was 2.97; the draft now recommends a weight of 1.03. At present the poverty weight is 0.25.
The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, which has called for the implementation of the weights delivered by Kolbe’s 2019 report to be implemented, remains concerned that removing the ELL weighting factor will harm those students.
In written testimony earlier this month, Winooski School Superintendent Sean McMannon said choosing to remove ELL from the rest of the formula and setting that funding at an insufficient level, “results in discrimination against ELL students on the basis of national origin and language.” Secretary of Education Daniel French underscored that concern Friday.
Task force members emphasized that their intent is to provide equitable ELL resources and not harm students or schools.
“I think its important for people to understand the intent was to make sure ELL students are getting the resources they need and they deserve,” James said Friday. “Currently, the weights don’t necessarily deliver the tax capacity smaller districts with fewer ELL students need.”
Coalition member Alex Yin, a member of the Winooski School Board, said the proposed cost equity formula erodes local control, calling that “a slap to the face of all Vermonters, because essentially you told us that the state government does not trust us to take care of our children.”
“This is highly ironic, since it was a state formula that prevented many of our school districts from educating our children in an equitable way,” Yin said. “For the past 20 years, the state has trusted wealthy districts to make spending decisions that are best for their students and their communities. I want local control for my district as well, and it is a true Vermont value, because our community can hold our school board officials much more accountable than legislators who do not live in our district.”
Kolbe lauded the task force’s work, calling it “a level and understanding of school funding in Vermont I haven’t seen before.”
But she also cautioned that the equity cost approach is not foolproof. She said that formula will need to be constantly recalibrated and maintained to reflect costs it seeks to address; that it could widen the gap between resource-rich and resource-poor districts; that providing direct funding might incentivize spending; that it carries the potential for political manipulation; and that it could result in competition for resources.
“We want to equalize educational opportunity for students in Vermont regardless of where they live, and at the same time we want to make sure we’re generating revenues in a fair and efficient way,” Kolbe said. “It’s important the report recognizes off the bat that’s the challenge.”
Coalition executive director Marc Schauber of West Dover said the group is thankful for the task force’s effort, “and [that it] included weights as a recommended option because they are more simple to implement, don’t upend the entire system and are equitable across the board as long as the excess spending threshold is reinstated.”
State Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, said she supports restoring the ELL weight to the equity calculation.
“What’s missing is the sense of urgency that comes from acknowledging that this system was broken from day one and that kids, communities and taxpayers have been harmed,” Sibilia said. She said she does not support the cost equity proposal at present.
“I do not agree with the framing of this issue as a system which has gradually gone out of balance. As the UVM/Rutgers report discovered the weighting of student need was only considered in a political capacity, not empirically,” she said. “As someone who was ringing alarm bells 15 years ago, I can attest that the legislature and previous administrations had ample indication that something was wrong over a decade ago.”