Rep. Kathleen James

Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington 4

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Since mid-July, a legislative task force has been taking a hard look at Vermont’s education funding system. In many ways, we have one of the most equitable school-finance models in the country. Our statewide Education Fund establishes a shared commitment to raise the revenues we need, year after year, to pay for our schools. Local voters approve budgets and we all chip in — pooling our property taxes, sales and use tax, vehicle purchase tax, and even lottery revenues to hit that mark. This statewide system also delivers tax-rate equity, meaning any two towns with the same level of per-pupil spending will have the same adjusted tax rate.

So what’s to fix? Another important equity lever is “weighting,” which means our system accounts for the fact that different categories of students cost more to educate. When we calculate the number of “equalized pupils” in each district — a number that directly impacts local property tax rates — we acknowledge that students living in poverty or English language learners, for example, often require a bigger investment. Yet according to a peer-reviewed 2019 study, our weights are outdated and don’t capture the full extent of these costs.

The UVM-led weighting study offers a thoughtful, empirical look at one key facet of our education finance system. But its scope was narrow by legislative request. In Act 173 of 2018, the General Assembly asked three focused questions: whether the current weights should be modified; whether new weights should be added; and whether we should further adjust the way we help school districts cover the cost of special education.

The study aptly answered these questions with clear policy recommendations — while also posing policy options. It’s an excellent roadmap that offers several routes to reach the shared goal of greater educational equity. But to design a lasting solution, it’s not enough to simply update the weights. We need to take a broader look — to ensure we’re also considering questions the UVM researchers were not asked to explore.

The current task force was created by S.13, a bill that passed the legislature in May 2021 and was signed into law by Governor Scott in June. This bill charges us — four members of the House, four of the Senate — with “ensuring that all public-school students have equitable access to educational opportunities.” In addition to this hefty mandate, S.13 includes a complex and interrelated list of topics we’re required to consider, all while taking the study into account.

When we deliver our report and action plan in December, it must address not only how to integrate the findings of the study — a critical step — but also, among other things:

• How categorical aid (either as supplement or substitute to weights) can address differences in the cost of educating students across districts

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• How to define a “student from an economically disadvantaged background” (and the best way to gather this poverty data)

• How to simplify our education finance formula and make it more transparent

• How to ensure all districts are meeting the state’s education quality standards

• How to transition to the new weights to ease the financial impact on districts that will see a loss in taxing capacity

• And how this all interacts with changes to special-education funding and within the context of Act 60, Act 68 and Act 46

In art, “negative space” is the empty space that surrounds the subject — for example, the white space that surrounds a black silhouette. It’s a critical part of any composition; it defines and draws attention to the main subject.

I think of our work on the task force in the same way. In designing an even more fair and equitable education funding system — one that works for our large urban districts, our small rural districts, and delivers equity to all students, in every and any category — we must act on the questions that have already been answered, while doing our best to ask the questions that follow.

Kathleen James represents Bennington-4 (Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives. She serves on the House Education Committee and is a member of the Task Force on the Implementation of the Pupil Weighting Factors Report.  The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of Vermont News & Media.