Student weighting dominates a lot of discussions around Vermont school funding these days. I guess that’s what we should expect after the release last year of a report to the Legislature titled: “Study of Pupil Weights in Vermont’s Education Funding Formula.” But the study also raises broader questions about money and education.
The weighting study examined the cost of raising educational achievement for certain categories of students: economically disadvantaged, non-native English speakers, and those attending small schools or schools in sparsely populated areas. It costs more to improve the educational outcomes for these groups of students than for students not in these categories. The point of the study was to figure out how much more.
For example, if it cost $1,500 per student to get one unit of improvement for students who were not economically disadvantaged, what was the cost to get the same unit of improvement for economically disadvantaged students?
After calculating the relative costs, the study recommended ways to adjust the funding system to compensate for the differences. The adjustment mechanism — a new system of student weighting — has generated most of the headlines and public attention surrounding the study. There has been little — if any — discussion about what the study says about the basic connection between spending and student achievement.
It wasn’t that long ago that calls to increase funding for education ran into opposition from people who claimed that more money wouldn’t improve student outcomes. But now, thanks to better data and more research, it is possible to calculate the cost of improving student performance.
It would have been helpful if the study provided details about how schools and school districts could deploy additional resources to improve student achievement. Parents, voters, and taxpayers tend to be more supportive when they can see and understand the additional services and programs they’re being asked to pay for. But the study clearly found measurable connections between funding and student outcomes.
The study did not recommend how much Vermont should spend on education generally or on any of the specific categories of students. And rightly so. Vermont still confers that decision and responsibility on voters in local communities.
But that raises an interesting question: If parents and voters saw a clear connection between funding and their students’ performance in school, what level of performance would they want for their students? From some quarters at least, we have heard for years that Vermont spends too much on education. But in the various rankings published each year listing states with the best and worst public schools, Vermont typically appears among the top five or 10 best in the nation.
And when we see this evident connection between cost and performance, what are we to make of the continued calls to reduce spending on education? It’s been a constant theme of Gov. Phil Scott. How much lower should we set our sights for our kids’ education in order to reduce the budget?