"Two out of Three ain't Bad" was the title of a popular song back in the 1970s, and it may become the theme song of the future of Vermont's education spending.
By now everyone has had time to process and reflect upon the headline story of last week's town meeting votes on school district budgets around the state. Thirty-five communities, the most since 2003 when Act 68, the state's education finance law and successor to Act 60 went into effect, defeated their proposed school budgets. Two of those communities - Bennington and Danby - are here in our neck of the woods.
That would seem enough to send an unmistakable message to Montpelier that property tax rates, which provide the bulk of the $1.5 billion that finance the state's public schools, have finally reached the breaking point. The only surprise really is that it took this long. It demonstrates the value most Vermonters place on education and their feeling that their local school boards have been trying valiantly to hold the line on increased spending to the extent they can. But a tipping point is clearly at hand.
The state's base property tax rate went up five cents for this year and looks set to rise by another seven cents in time for next year's tax bills. A 12 cent increase over two years, with no assurance that this will solve the state's long-term education funding problems, is unsustainable. The income sensitivity provisions of Act 68 protect many Vermonters who, as a household, earn less than $92,000 from the harshest impact of the financing mechanism, but not businesses. Many, we fear, will look at their tax bills for their non-residential property and wonder why they are in business in Vermont.
The balancing act between evening out educational opportunity and not penalizing less affluent communities for failing to provide those opportunities - a noble enterprise and the main impetus to Act 60 in 1998 - is getting harder to sustain.
The numbers are stark. The state continues to see a decline in the aggregate number of students attending publicly supported schools in Vermont. There are now fewer than 80,000 such students, down from 103,000 when Act 60 came into existence. At the same time, we have the lowest student-teacher ratio in the country. Per pupil expenditures are the second highest in the nation, after New York. The number of school districts is high and the number of students per school district is extraordinarily low.
Fortunately, help may be on the way, finally. The House Education Committee is considering a consolidation proposal which, if adopted by the full legislature - highly unlikely in this election year - would make a start towards rationalizing the way the state delivers educational services. What's gotten the most attention - and the most push back from local school boards leery of losing what little remains of "local control" - is the idea to consolidate the state's 285 school boards down to a more manageable 30 or so. But consolidation isn't where the big money is to be had in terms of savings. That only comes when school buildings are closed and fewer teachers employed. Ultimately, that is what needs to happen if the state is serious about aligning its education spending to a level its taxpayers can afford.
This is a painful thought for many to contemplate but the logic behind it is inescapable. There is enough excess capacity in some of the area's larger schools to accommodate schools that could be shuttered. And that doesn't have to mean any kind of degradation of educational quality.
In fact, it's more likely the reverse - fewer schools, with more students per teacher, mean more educational opportunities, not fewer. If a school has only 3 or 4 kids signed up for French, then the school can't afford to have a French teacher. If you have a bigger pool of students, and 12 or 15 interested in taking French, voila! you can hire a French teacher, instead of paying a heating oil bill.
Local control is one argument that's been thrown against consolidation. The other is school choice, a big deal in these parts. The concern around choice seems to be whether - in a 30 or so "super-district" state - students in one district can cross boundary lines to attend a school in another. That shouldn't be an unconquerable problem. Those interested in having such a choice may need to pay more for it, but the basic idea behind that doesn't seem incompatible with consolidation and tightening down on overall education spending. And let's bear in mind that for all the uproar over school choice, less than 4 percent of Vermont's students live in so-called "choice" towns - where a local elementary, middle or high school is not located in one of those towns.
Whatever emerges - eventually - will require a lot of courage on the part of lawmakers to push it through. On this score, we'd like to give our local representative, Jeff Wilson, points for advocating for a rationalization of our inefficient school and school board structure, which he discussed in his previous "Legislative Notebook" column two weeks ago. And we're interested in the online petition being co-sponsored by Rep. Patti Komline calling for repealing Act 60/68.
People won't like it, but this will probably have to be a "top-down" solution from Montpelier. Waiting for local boards to merge on their own will take too long, and the taxpayer's wallets can't wait.
Local control. School Choice. Cost reduction. Two out of three ain't bad. Vermonters will have to pick which two they want, because we can't have all three.