Phil Scott: Building the best education system
As I've said, I cannot accept an increase in statewide property tax rates and here's why: I ran for office understanding state government needed to focus more of our efforts on making Vermont more affordable and growing the economy.
Last year, with the help of the Legislature, we passed a budget without raising a single tax or fee, without cutting services and while investing in economic growth. It was the first time this was achieved in decades, and we did it while addressing revenue shortfalls.
This year, we have a total of $160 million more in revenue than we did last year (much of it from increasing economic activity) which includes at least $44 million in surplus tax revenue. This is excellent news. So, I just don't understand legislators' insistence on raising statewide property tax rates when we don't have to.
From my perspective, raising taxes should always be the last resort. And that's why I vetoed the budget and tax bills. But education taxes are only one part of an important challenge we must address.
Vermont has great schools, teachers and staff. By most measures, we deliver a good education to our kids. But we could have the very best education in the country, if lawmakers have the courage to face the reality of our current situation and rethink the policies of the past.
Our education system is being weakened by a decline in our working-age population and an increasingly inefficient system that's diverting budget dollars away from kids. The K-12 system was built to educate more than 100,000 kids. Today, we're educating about 76,0000 - that's 27,000 fewer in 20 years, and declines continue. Our student-to-staff ratio has decreased from about seven kids for every one adult to about four to one.
Meanwhile, the state has increased property tax rates (on top of local rate increases) virtually every year - often faster than growth in Vermonters' paychecks and property values. Even since Act 46 of 2015, which streamlines school governance, costs grew by more than $60 million while the number of students decreased by about 2,000.
These trends have contributed significantly to the affordability crisis many families face, persistent inequality between districts, and expanding inefficiencies that divert millions of dollars away from our kids.
To be very clear, my focus is not on cutting spending - it's about spending money far better than we do today, so we can do more and make our education system the very best in the country.
Think of it this way: We are now spending more than $1.6 billion to educate 76,000 students.
According to the National Education Association, we have, by far, the largest per-student investment in the country, spending twice the national average. We have a good graduation rate, but our student test scores are only two percentage points higher than the national average. We are not making substantial gains in improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. And only about half of our high school graduates go on to receive a technical or trade credential or earn a college degree.
Outcomes and funding from school to school remain alarmingly unequal. We have some schools offering a wide range of foreign languages, environmental studies, cutting-edge science, technology and engineering programs. And we have other schools that can't offer any of these opportunities.
It's time to have the courage to admit we can do much more for our kids, achieve better outcomes and attract more families.
That's why I've proposed a plan to stabilize statewide property tax rates for five years, work with districts to make structural reforms and free up hundreds of millions in additional savings to invest in more opportunities for our kids.
Preventing statewide property tax rate increases would also help homeowners and renters get ahead and make it easier for employers to grow and create more good jobs - generating additional organic economic growth and, with budget discipline, more surpluses.
Change can be difficult, and I know how hard it is to reconsider long-held views. But if lawmakers truly care about increasing quality and decreasing inequality in education, they must have the courage to rethink the way we've always done things, break the cycle of constant increases in education tax rates and persistent inequality between schools, and reform a good system to make it the very best in America.
Phil Scott is the governor of Vermont.
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