Rebecca Holcombe: Is Scott using funny numbers to discredit public schools?

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Gov. Phil Scott repeatedly proclaims his dedication to making Vermont more affordable, growing the economy and protecting the most vulnerable. His administration's latest education proposal, developed with input from his cabinet, advocates building a second, parallel education system statewide, by paying for tuition vouchers for any student to any of "the public schools, technical centers, and non-sectarian independent schools approved by the Agency (p9)."

All Vermont high school students already have the option of enrolling in career and technical centers or exercising statewide public school choice. So, the novelty here is demanding the Education Fund pay not just for a system of public schools, but also for a parallel system of private schools. Past experience with tuition vouchers in Vermont demonstrates that this practice reduces affordability in the Education Fund and threatens some of our most vulnerable students. Moreover, the few numbers in the Administration's proposal are wrong.

Let's start with those numbers. Puzzlingly, the Administration proposal presents false per pupil costs - figures that were already corrected last year by John Walters at Seven Days.

The Administration proposal claims: "According to the National Education Association, in the 2015-2016 school year Vermont's per pupil expenditure was $23,557, or $2,000 more per pupil than New York who spent the second most. This compares to a national average of $11,787 per pupil." As Seven Days and the NEA both explained, "Students who attend independent schools at public expense are not included in the student enrollment count."

In fact, the governor omitted from his count taxpayer-funded students enrolled in the independent school run by the Department of Corrections, in-state approved private non-profit schools such as Lyndon Education Alternative and Southshire Community School, out-of-country and out-of-state prep schools, public schools in NH, NY and MA, pre-kindergartens, and Early College programs.

Last year's Agency of Education budget book for FY19 states there were 89,000 publicly funded students, which yields per pupil spending closer to $18,000 (p.45). This number is over $5,300 per pupil less than the number the administration continues to use, despite including items that are not K-12 education. There are only two reasonable explanations for the Administration's use of inflated numbers: they don't understand the system they manage, or they are willfully using inflated numbers to inflame voters into hasty decisions about public schools.

To fund total average spending of about $18,000 per student, as the Department of Labor's 2017 economic profile explains, "The homestead education tax rate in each municipality depends upon the local per pupil spending." Proposed spending per equalized pupil for the 18-19 school year ranged from a high of $21,018 in Winhall, which provides tuition vouchers instead of schools, to a low of $12,060 in Montgomery, up on the Canadian border.

What do we buy with this actual spending? About 75 percent of every dollar is spent on our "net education payment," which covers most "education costs" including operating public schools, tuition payments to independent schools, supervisory costs, and Career and Technical Education. Thus, Vermont spends about $13,395 per student on what most of us think of as "school."

Here's another fact that you won't hear from the Scott administration: tuition voucher districts spend more per pupil on average than operating districts. FY19 budget data show that this year, K-12 tuition voucher districts had the highest growth in spending per pupil (up 14.5 percent in FY19) AND the highest per pupil spending on average (about $17,999). Before pushing ahead with universal vouchers, we'd be foolish if we did not ask why these districts report spending about $1,500 more per pupil than districts that operate public schools. Despite the fact that K-12 tuition districts are the most expensive on average, they uniquely are exempted from the excess spending threshold — a perverse incentive.

And, from FY16 to FY17, tuition paid to Vermont's approximately 94 taxpayer-funded VT K-12 private schools increased 15 percent (about $10.36 million), even as publicly-funded enrollment in these schools increased by only 37 students. We need to understand why.

What the data make clear is that Scott wants us all to adopt a model that has proved expensive. This suggests his true priority is not affordability, but private school choice. Perhaps this is why the Governor perseverated on high costs in public schools, but ignored higher per pupil costs in tuition voucher districts like Winhall.

Of note, the next 19 percent of each education dollar we spend covers services for students with disabilities in public AND private schools. That's because private schools are reimbursed by school districts over and beyond the cost of tuition for services for any students with disabilities. Beyond that, school district budgets pay for transportation, small school subsidies, children in state custody, dual enrollment, and new investments in childcares and colleges.

If we want to spend less, we need to start by understanding what drives costs up, including costs that are not under the control of school boards. However, when the administration talks about reducing property taxes, it focuses exclusively on cutting costs in public schools. It repeatedly critiques opportunities and ratios in small public schools, but not small taxpayer-funded private schools, even though on average, tax-payer funded private schools in Vermont are smaller than public schools. Last year, the Scott administration vetoed the budget and nearly shut down state government in its pursuit of cuts in public schools and minimum student:staff ratios in public schools. Absent from this conversation was any mention of applying those same standards to tax-payer funded private schools, let alone any evaluation of whether those extra public school staff were backfilling human and mental health services to fill gaps in struggling state safety nets.

One of the most effective ways to reduce per pupil costs is to get students at the same grade levels under fewer roofs in parts of the state where that makes sense. This looks different in different places. Bethel and Royalton merged their middle and high schools. Elmore and Morristown merged into one K-12 public school district. Both substantially reduced costs. Expanding the number of "roofs" for which we pay through expanded private school choice simply unwinds the progress on cost containment made by other districts.

Beyond this fiscal reality, we need to ask: what is the likely impact on our most vulnerable children of a statewide universal voucher model? Voucher systems in other states and nations have tended to segregate students with disabilities and students who live in poverty, and Vermont data suggest our tuition vouchers are no different. After Rep. Oliver Olsen (now on the State Board of Education) expressed legitimate concerns about the quality of the Agency of Education's private school enrollment data, Dr. Heather Bouchey at the Agency of Education cross-checked where VT tuition voucher students were reportedly enrolled against where school districts actually paid money for tuition, to ensure data accuracy.

This analysis excluded all schools with a therapeutic or more restrictive special education purpose, which serve students with highly specialized needs from all districts. It also excluded out-of-state private schools like Northfield Mount Hermon or Phillips Exeter Academy, which presumably serve few students eligible for special education services.

Of the remaining schools and students, Bouchey's analysis demonstrated that in FY15, 49 percent of tuition voucher students enrolled in public schools. However,

68 percent of tuition voucher students with disabilities enrolled in public schools, and 59 percent of tuition voucher students who were eligible for free and reduced lunch enrolled in public schools.

In other words, students with disabilities or who have fewer family resources were more likely to use their vouchers at nearby public schools. That means

public schools are serving increasing numbers of students with higher needs, being told to do so with fewer staff, and being criticized for allocating funds to meet those needs. This calls into question the sincerity of the state's commitment to the "vulnerable."

In practice, the administration's proposals consistently reward high-spending districts that purchase education with tuition vouchers, while punishing lower- spending, high-poverty public schools—something some Act 46-anxious districts have noted. Because the administration does not consider cost containment to be a responsibility in the publicly-funded privately-operated education sector, he creates perverse incentives and a perception of unfairness.

Vermont schools have excess capacity. Nevertheless, Vermont taxpayers spend $15,618 per pupil in FY19 to subsidize students at schools like Northfield Mount Hermon Academy (acceptance rate of 32 percent, boarding tuition and fees of $65,604, student-to-teacher ratio of 6:1) and Phillips Exeter Academy (acceptance rate of 17 percent, boarding tuition and fees of $54,171, student-to-teacher ratio of 5:1). At the same time, the administration is forcing cuts in high-poverty Vermont public school districts that spend less per pupil than voucher districts, have higher student-to-teacher ratios than private schools and serve more students with disabilities.

Vermont's fiscal challenges are real, but since we created them, we should be able to fix them. Affordability, quality and equity must be shared obligations.

While there is a lot community public schools can do to be more efficient and effective, the Administration's focus on eroding public schools while privatizing the system will exacerbate our current challenges of cost, quality and inequity.

Rebecca Holcombe served as Secretary of Education for Vermont from December 2013 until March 2018. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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