MONTPELIER — Let the education discussion begin.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the House Education Committee Room and spilled out into the hallway Wednesday morning for the first day of what will be a session-long debate on what to do about rising property taxes and education costs.
“You’re welcome to contact the House Speaker’s Office and request a bigger room,” joked Chairman David Sharpe, D-Bristol, whose committee took testimony from groups representing school boards, superintendents and teachers.
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, offered testimony that laid out the challenges currently faced in education in Vermont.
“You need to be pragmatic and visionary,” said Francis, who recalled the state-wide discussions surrounding the implementation of the current education funding system in 1997. “You have to go a long ways to find things that Vermonters care about more than their children and their money.”
Francis noted that Vermonters pay more per-pupil to educate their students, even with a year’s-long moratorium on school construction aid from the state. Francis also pointed out that, at the same time, many schools in the state are so small that it is impossible to collect accurate performance data.
“The public education system in Vermont is not in balance,” Francis said.
Francis said this is the year for lawmakers to make education reforms, and noted that, since 2007, his association has supported the creation of pre-K-12 school systems, each with a single governing board.
Joel Cook, executive director of the Vermont-NEA, which represents more than 12,000 teachers in the state, took issue with the notion that having the smallest student-to-teacher ratio of any state in the country is a bad thing, and disagreed with education experts such as Agency of Education Sec. Rebecca Holcombe, who has said that class sizes below 15 are less than ideal for many reasons.
“There’s no research that indicates that the number 15 is something magical when it comes to educating our kids,” said Cook, who went on to say that Vermont is the only place where people discuss if classes are too small.
While Francis said this is the year the Legislature should revisit education funding, Cook urged committee members to be “patient” and said local communities are “good governors” of school spending.
He also urged the committee to not go down the path it did last year when it crafted a bill that would have mandated school district consolidation.
“You can spend a lot of time advancing the ball down the field to nowhere by trying to mandate school consolidation from Montpelier,” Cook said.
Stephen Dale, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said his members are not interested in preserving the status quo and recognize the need for change. He offered an idea that he acknowledged would be considered “heresy” by some members of 1,450-strong association.
Pointing out that Vermont has a state-wide education funding system wherein the spending decisions of a single community affect everyone, Dale suggested creating a mechanism that would allow the Agency of Education to intervene when a school district is proposing a school budget where per-pupil opening is substantially higher than the state average.
Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, noted that “under the current education funding method, voters don’t have any way to understand the value of their vote as it relates to the whole system, and not just as it relates to their school. How can taxpayers understand the state-wide implication of their vote?”
Francis agreed that under the current system, it is “difficult to explain or comprehend.”
Everyone who gave testimony Wednesday agreed that the interests of the students should be the top priority. Rep. Kurt Wright, R-Burlington, said that when it comes to education funding reform, students need to share top-priority status with another important segment of the population.
“Along with the student at the top of this, the taxpayer needs to be right beside him,” Wright said.