Carolyn Partridge: Here's proof that local students have been shortchanged by education funding formula

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On Christmas Eve, the long-awaited Pupil Weighting Factors Report, more commonly known as the Weighting Study, was submitted by the Secretary of Education, Dan French, to the House and Senate Committees on Education, the House Committee on Ways and Means, and the Senate Committee on Finance. While the timing of the release, the day before Christmas, was interesting, the importance of the study should not be underestimated and is something that should have been done years ago.

Why? Because the weighting of students has an important effect on the education funding formula and the resulting tax rate in your town. It is also an indicator of whether or not the intent of the Vermont Supreme Court Brigham Decision (the court case that was the genesis for Act 60 that required an equal opportunity for education for every Vermont student) and the goals of the resulting Act 60/68 are being met. In other words, it has constitutional implications.

Passed in 2018, Act 173 required "the Agency of Education (AOE) to consider and make various recommendations for changes to the census grant funding model, changes or additions to the per pupil weighting factors used to allocate special education funding under the census grant model, and any additional methods for consideration." It also required the Agency to "contract with a contractor with expertise in Vermont's education funding system to assist the Agency in producing the study required."

The contractors who were chosen to do the research included Tammy Kolbe, Ed.D. from the University of Vermont; Bruce Baker, Ph.D. from Rutgers University; and Drew Atchison, Ph.D., and Jesse Levin, Ph.D., both from the American Institutes for Research.

Through the evolution of Acts 60/68, in order to equalize the opportunity for education, a value, or weight, has been assigned to pupils. That value represents how much it costs to educate a pupil. An elementary school pupil with no special circumstances or needs is valued at 1.00. Because it was thought that it cost more to educate a high school pupil, that pupil was valued originally at 1.25. In other words, one and quarter times more expensive than an elementary pupil. This makes sense because there are factors like science labs, extracurricular sports, and more specialized teachers to meet high school requirements. Additional allowances were made for poverty and English as a second language, or English Language Learners (ELL). It should be stressed that these values were really just best guesses.

When added up, the result was the number of "equalized pupils" and the higher that number, the more a school benefits. Also, it provided a higher number with which to divide the total expenses when determining the per pupil cost.

Because these values were best guesses at the beginning of Act 60's new education funding formula, a more thorough study should have been done shortly thereafter or the goal of the Brigham Decision might not have been achieved. But that was more than 20 years ago! One of those values was changed eventually and the high school value was dropped from 1.25 to 1.13.

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A year after Act 60 was passed, the Small Schools Grant was added to the mix. No weight had been added for students in sparsely populated towns but there was a recognition that small schools lacked economies of scale and were being disadvantaged by a funding formula that was based on per pupil spending. The recent attempt, after Act 46 was enacted, to do away with the Small Schools Grants exacerbated the problem of inequity for our smaller, rural schools.

The contractors were asked to do a study that examines and evaluates whether: "1) the current weights for economically-disadvantaged students, English language learners (ELL), and secondary-level students should be modified; 2) new cost factors and weights should be incorporated into the equalized pupil calculation; and 3) the special education census grant should be adjusted for differences in the incidence of and costs associated with SWD (Students with Disabilities) across school districts." In other words, did those original best guesses really represent fairness to all Vermont students?

The Weighting Study made several findings including: 1) "Cost factors that are commonly-recognized in state funding formula include adjustments for: student need, including economically-disadvantaged and at-risk students; ELL; SWD; and gifted and talented; economies of scale and geographic necessity, including district and school size and population density; grade range; and resource prices." And 2) "Vermont's existing school funding formula accounts for differences in educational costs across school districts by recognizing three cost factors — student poverty, limited English proficiency, and secondary-level education — and assigning weights to these factors in its equalized pupil calculations. In addition, the state operates categorical funding programs for special education, small schools, and transportation."

Perspectives offered by the Weighting Study report include 1) "The cost factors incorporated in the calculation do not reflect current educational circumstances. Stakeholders viewed the existing approach as "outdated." Neither the factors considered by the formula nor the value of the weights reflect contemporary educational circumstances and costs." And 2) "The values for the existing weights have weak ties, if any, with evidence describing differences in the costs for educating students with disparate needs or operating schools in different contexts."

What the study found was that there are "a comprehensive set of factors that are related to differences in educational costs across school districts." They are the percentage of students who are economically disadvantaged, ELL, and students enrolled in the middle-and secondary-grades. Also included are indicators for geographically-necessary small schools and population density of the community in which a district is located.

The takeaway for me as the Chair of the Windham School Board is that for 20-plus years, Windham students have been shortchanged by the current education funding formula, as have many of the schools in the Windham Central Supervisory Union. As a result, I have signed on to four pieces of legislation sponsored by Reps. Laura Sibilia, John Gannon, and Kelly Pajala that would begin to rectify the situation. While I would love reparations, my main goal is to correct this as quickly as possible. Additionally, I have introduced legislation, H.661, that would correct the current misguided support for Pre-K Special Education, which is funded at a much lower level than Kindergarten-12th grade. K-12 is supported at 56 percent while Pre-K is funded at 15.5 percent and, given what we know about early intervention, this is just wrong.

The entire Weighting Study including the Executive Summary can be accessed by going to: https://education.vermont.gov/sites/aoe/files/documents/edu-legislative-report-pupil-weighting-factors-2019.pdf.

State Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham-3, welcomes emails at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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