H.361, The Education Bill

March 8, 2015

With the Red Sox back in the sports pages, I'll use a baseball analogy regarding the education bill, H.361, that was just voted out of the House Education Committee.  While there was a tremendous amount of effort to craft this legislation, we are really only in the third inning of a long contest that will be played out into May.

 

Functionally, this education legislation is intended to address two major issues.  The first is the inflation in education costs relative to the decline in the number of K-12 students.  Vermont’s K-12 student population declined from approximately 97,000 in 2004 to 82,000 in 2014.  In spite of this 15% decline, we have retained the same number of educators in our schools while health care costs, fuel oil costs, and special education costs have increased markedly.

 

The second issue relates to equity in educational opportunity.  Some schools in Vermont have shrunk to a size where educational offerings are not up to 21st century needs.  The foreign languages, breadth in math and science offerings, and opportunities for socialization that exist with greater numbers of students in a school have evaporated in some districts in Vermont.  Tiny school districts often find themselves in a vicious cycle of declining enrollment, increasing tax rates, cuts in spending, reduced educational opportunities, and reduced attractiveness to young families…as enrollment further declines.

 

Some of the directives in H.361:

  • By 2019, school districts will be required to merge into districts of at least 1,100 students and share responsibility for the education of all pre-K through grade 12 students. The State Board of Education may approve alternate configurations proposed by two or more districts.

  • Districts will be capped at a 2% spending increase through 2019.

  • Schools with fewer than 100 students or 20 students per grade will no longer remain eligible for Small School Grants unless they operate as part of a merged district.

  • School budget warnings and ballots will include specific disclosure of per pupil spending, percent change, and overall budget amount.

  • Phantom student" counts will be capped at 3.5% of the actual equalized student count from the previous year.

  • Out-of-state tuition payments will be limited to existing interstate school districts, schools in NH/NY/MA communities that directly border VT, and a small number of other exceptions.  Current students not meeting criteria will be grandfathered into their current schools.

  • A moratorium through 2016 on any new legislation that would increase property taxes.

 

H.361 takes some appropriate steps to address the two major issues highlighted above.  The economic framework (Small School Grants and phantom school funding) Vermont erected to keep tiny schools afloat has outlived its utility and should be modified.  Initiatives in the legislation focused on making education funding more transparent are a step forward.  A moratorium on unfunded educational mandates is a breath of fresh air, even if it is only for a year.

 

The first two bullet points above (required school district mergers and mandated spending caps) will likely attract the most attention as local school boards and citizens in our four towns weigh in.  I prefer a path of local accountability: schools need to demonstrate they are meeting students’ 21st century needs; citizens and school boards must find a level of educational spending that suits local needs.  For some towns, these goals will be met in partnership with other districts.  But not for all towns, and just as we know that students learn in a variety of ways, it would be a shame to assume only one path exists to address our current challenges.

 

In the on-deck circle is the House Ways & Means Committee (Jim’s committee) and they will be taking a swing at H.361 in the next few weeks.  The middle innings will play out on the Senate side of the State House before we enter the late innings on a final bill in May.  Please be sure to stay in touch with Jim and me as this education bill continues to evolve.

 

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