Commentary: Replace the Education Funding Formula

Vermont’s property tax burden will continue to dominate conversation around the state, and in the State House, until the Legislature has the political will to address the problem in its entirety.

That problem is composed of three primary parts: An inefficient education system built to serve tens-of-thousands more students than we have today, an outdated human service system that is failing families and children and shifting the burden on to schools, and a supercharged education funding formula created in Act 60, modified in Act 68 and further tweaked over the years that lacks real cost containment incentives.

We simply cannot afford what we have and because we can’t afford to make improvements kids are getting short changed. Act 46, while imperfect and in need of improvement, jumpstarted the difficult but necessary discussion on school consolidation. Reforming our human service system from one that measures inputs (how many people we’re enrolling) to one that measures outputs (how many people we’re helping to achieve financial independence) is a complex discussion our Democrat colleagues have so far refused to have. And, our statewide education funding model, the focus of this piece, has out- lived its useful life and become an enormous economic burden requiring immediate reform.

The complexity of our education funding system has disconnected voters from understanding the true impact of their vote on property taxes and created perverse incentives for schools, particularly schools that are inefficient, to spend more. As education spending and property taxes have increased by hundreds of millions of dollars, we’ve seen the student population decline by over 30,000 students — even while the number of school employees has continued to grow.

But, what are we getting for this astronomically high spending (the most per pupil in America) and the smallest classrooms in our nation? The answer, sadly, is mediocre results.

Vermont has seen no significant improvement in outcomes — still, only half of our kids who graduate from high school go on to college, training in the construction trades or military service. Only half! That’s totally unacceptable.

We can replace our twisted education finance system with one that prioritizes measurable student improvement, eliminates complexity, reduces overhead costs and provides parents the rights to choose a public school that best fits the needs of their child. But we have to be willing to acknowledge that the education financing policies of the past 20 years are not going to be innovative solutions for our future.

Act 46 encourages school districts to evaluate merging with neighboring districts in an effort to address inefficient schools with classrooms that are far too expensive and below the size education experts say is most valuable to a child’s social and academic development. The law also includes a cost containment provision that established a cap on spending growth for school districts. This provision is a firm, but fair, tool for encouraging school districts to address unsustainable growth in spending and property taxes.

To their credit, many school districts are complying with the law and have been making the tough decisions necessary to limit their spending. These districts should be applauded not penalized. Democrats, who have controlled all of our state government for six years, must stop appeasing the special interests that favor higher taxes and higher spending. Make no mistake, any change by the Legislature that repeals or increases the allowable growth limit will increase education spending and increase your property taxes.

Now is the time to replace Vermont’s broken education funding formula. Please contact your Representative to let them know how you feel about this very important issue. Contact information is available at www.Legislature.Vermont.Gov

Replacing the funding formula has been studied, alternatives have been proposed and this session is the time to take action.

And if they don’t make the change you’re hoping for, we’re counting on you to help make change next November in the voting booth.

Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, is the House minority leader.

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