11-24-13 – We need to reevaluate Vermont’s education system

This post is a response to a recent op-ed by Paul Cillo of the Public Assets Institute that appeared in many local Vermont papers.

In a November 11th editorial, Paul Cillo claimed that “Vermont is getting it’s money’s worth” in education. Yes, our system is working well at many levels, but I strongly dispute that the money we are spending is worth it — or necessary. We’ve crossed a line of diminishing returns that’s taking a toll on our economy and quality of life. Our notorious high cost of living keeps going up. Yes, it’s a beautiful place, but when does it become untenable? Our property taxes continue to climb, with many homes now sitting on the market for years. What good is a great school system if a young family can’t afford to live here?

Certain Picus statistics support Mr. Cillo’s belief that our schools are doing good job. For example, Vermont’s NAEP scores continually rank among the top ten in the nation, with a steady increase in high school graduation rates. From 2003 to 2011, Vermont’s test scores for both math and reading in the 4th and 8th grades improved, with math and reading scores above the national average. (In fact, Vermont’s scores never ranked lower than 7th nationally.) All good news, and kudos to our teachers (who rank only 28th in salaries in the nation, by the way).

But, we need to keep things in perspective. Is our per-pupil cost of $16,788, the third highest in the nation and the highest in New England, money well spent or necessary? According to other Picus findings, the slight increases in NAEP math and reading scores for 4th and 8th grade students are less than the national average increases and lower than in other New England states over this time period. Student performance on most aspects of the New England Common Assessment Program has only modestly increased. Other sources report that while Vermont’s high school graduation rate of 88 percent is higher than the national average, only 53 percent of graduates go right from high school to college only 60 percent enroll in college within 16 months of graduation. These figures are below the national average, and lower than any other New England state. As a point of reference, Campaign for Vermont’s position paper, Putting Children First, calculates that if Vermont’s per pupil spending equaled that of Massachusetts, which has better student outcomes than Vermont and likely the best in the nation, Vermont education costs would be $168 million less.

Maybe public schools are a bargain elsewhere, but here in Vermont, we’re shopping well beyond our means at Saks Fifth Avenue. Our state has the 3rd highest cost per student in the nation and the highest in New England, even though we rank only 19th in median household income. We have the smallest average school district size (299 students vs. 929 in New England and 3,212 in the U.S.) and the smallest pupil-to-teacher ratio with 9.8 to 1. And while our student population continues to decline every year, our education budget keeps increasing (+8.3% from FY2013 to FY2014).

This spending spree is unsustainable. It’s time to balance the feel-good sentiments about our education system with the practical realities of what we can afford and really need to spend. It’s time to start focusing on productivity: how to do more with less – with technology, leadership, and good old Vermont ingenuity. And, by the way, it’s time to stand up to the teachers’ union. Only when these things starts to happen will I join Mr. Cillo in declaring that Vermont’s truly getting its money’s worth.

– Beverly Biello lives in Panton, Vermont

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

jim bulmer November 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Yes, it’s time to stand up to the NEA. BUT, who is going to do it? As long as our present political party imbalance continues, it’s going to be the same old. Shumlin is in their pocket, and the same goes for the legislature. The problem goes far deeper. As long as our wellfare state mentality continues, nothing will change and middle class families will continue their out of state migration. Respectfully.

Reply

Lou King December 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Union presence and influence in the legislature allows the union to know what’s is happening long before the local boards of education do. Also as a result of this in bed relation with the legislature unions influence studies in both subject, content, and spin.

Reply

learn hebrew January 29, 2014 at 5:38 pm

This blog was… how do you say it? Relevant!!
Finally I’ve found something that helped me. Many thanks!

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