Commentary: Struggling to Feed and Discipline the “System”

by John McClaughryJohn 2

Over the past six weeks the House Ways and Means Committee has diligently worked to produce a coherent bill to shift Education Fund spending from some people and districts to other people and districts, and erect a disincentive to excessive school district spending. This is a very intricate and difficult task that, frankly, probably 90% of the legislators don’t readily understand.

Its proposals have included lowering school property tax rates in 2020, changing the parameters in the school property tax-determination formula, eliminating the income sensitivity program that lets 70% of Vermonters pay school taxes on the basis of their incomes, creating a new $59 million income tax education surcharge, and putting every school district into what up to now has been punitive excess spending territory.

Just reciting this abbreviated list illustrates how difficult it is to find a solution to educational finance that will satisfy even a bare majority of House and Senate members, plus the Governor.

Maybe it’s time for the Governor and legislators to step back and examine why Vermont’s K-12 education costs per pupil ($18,066) are the fourth highest in the nation. Four of the reasons are easily understood. Vermont has the nation’s lowest student to staff ratio (4.8:1), an oversupply of small schools and small classes, Universal pre-K that can claim little or no lasting educational value, and an enormous expenditure per pupil for special education services.

But beyond addressing these, we need to recognize that since 1971 we have steadily created a more centralized and expensive public school system. Maybe we should be looking for a new 21st century model.

Two early efforts were the Schoolchildren First and Education Freedom District proposals of 2001. The latter proposed to loosen the leash on districts interested in moving in more creative directions. Citizens could choose to opt their district out of the state-controlled public education system in favor of a new locally-controlled system characterized by competition, parental choice, opportunity, diversity of educational experience, and responsiveness to local citizens and voters.

Among the opportunities available to the new district would be:

  • exemption from state mandates and required supervisory overhead (except for civil rights and financial accountability)
  • parental choice, with educational funding paid out to parents for use in public, charter,  alternative, parochial, work-study or other educational programs.
  • voter approval of two district school budgets, one presented by the district school board covering non-instructional costs, and the other  presented by the teachers union, covering costs relating to the union contract.
  • allowing home schoolers to take selected classes, make use of library resources, and participate in extracurricular activities at public schools.
  • apprenticeship and community work-study alternatives to classroom instruction
  • exempting teachers from state certification requirements, and offering them merit pay
  • nationally recognized subject matter tests for students (such as ACT)
  • contracting for instruction, maintenance, and management
  • creating Florida-style McKay Scholarships for special education students

The idea behind the EFDs was to allow pioneering districts do creative things, so that others would be motivated to do the same. Despite promotion by the Chair of the House Education Committee, the “education stakeholders” killed the EFS bill in committee.

Eight years later the report of the Commission on Rebalancing Education Cost and Value found that “a policy of creating an ever-enlarging ‘system’, populated with thousands of teachers, administrators and bureaucrats, controlling the annual expenditure of $1,450 million taxpayer dollars, jealously protective of the benefits enjoyed by the people employed in the ‘system’, and dismissive of the abilities and preferences of parents and children, is a policy  headed off in a totally wrong direction…What is insupportable is the continuing and ever growing extraction of well over a billion tax dollars each year, to buy overpriced and undistinguished educational outcomes for Vermont children who need ever-better outcomes to live and compete in the 21st Century.”

Not surprisingly, the “education stakeholders” wanted no part of the Commission’s recommendations, because accepting many of them would threaten to disrupt their comfortable near-monopoly arrangement.

So today’s legislators valiantly soldier on, trying to make a different collection of taxpayers feed the system and create more powerful disincentives to excessive school district spending. At the same time the Governor, rightly concerned with “cost containment”, seems to lean toward doing that by creating a Great Big Hammer to beat school districts into submission.

But wait a minute – maybe the overgrown public school system  itself is the problem.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org). He was formerly vice chair of the Senate Education Committee.

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