April 6, 2015

Last week the House passed H.361, an education reform bill. The bill includes many intentions and action steps aimed at addressing education governance (in the form of Integrated Education Systems of at least 1,100 pre-K to 12 students), education funding, and education quality. It also includes many studies and reports. No major changes to the existing funding formula are presented.

While the Committee on Education put forward some sound and necessary measures to respond to changing demographics and economic pressures, there was one particular provision in H.361 that became a lightning rod, a bargaining chip, and a display of the games often played in the halls of the state house. On the campaign trail last year one statewide candidate submitted a proposal to cap the education property tax rate to ease the burden on taxpayers. The proposal was quickly picked apart since it would do little to address the factors that contribute to increased spending, would have blown a hole in the Education Fund, and tied the hands of school boards during their difficult budgeting process. It also didn’t take into account changes in the cost of living, healthcare and energy prices, facility needs, or fluctuations in enrollment that could come up hard against imposed budget caps. A new spending cap proposal in H.361 uses a different mechanism to attempt to control property tax hikes but could potentially have a similar effect of forcing punitive and damaging budget cuts on schools already struggling to control local tax rates while trying hard not to reduce educational opportunities.

The caps were originally proposed to regulate school budget growth by no more than 2% over the previous year’s equalized per pupil spending, but there was “vote erosion” among members who opposed this hard cap. This forced the committee to draft a compromise to secure enough votes to pass the bill the day before it came to the floor. The new proposal would make a statewide spending cap come into effect for 2018 and 2019 only  if in 2016 total statewide spending increases by 2.95% (which it did last year). At that point, a statewide imposition of variable caps would be triggered – constraining all district budgeting according to the higher of either the education (total budget) or per-pupil spending in the previous year. Depending on how much a district spends in 2016 per pupil or in total, allowable future growth would be within the range of 1-4%. In Barnard, for example, the allowed growth in either our total spending or per pupil spending would be 1.85%. If the town approves a budget in excess of that growth rate it will be deemed by the state to be a failed budget and the board will have to go back to the drawing board. Granted, there are provisions for districts to appeal the cap to the Secretary of Education and safeguards for unexpected increases in special education and maintenance costs, but ask any of our school board members what that cap could mean for our Barnard students.

When one member offered an amendment to H.361 just before the final vote to strip the entire caps section from the bill (something I supported), the motion to reconsider the committee’s triggered-cap proposal was defeated. The Speaker considered it to be a “substantial negation” of the underlying reform bill, denying it the relatively straightforward amendment process that most bills are subject to. In the words of another supporter of the committee bill: “This amendment has the potential to totally unravel this bill”. There was speculation beforehand that the spending caps were only included in H.361 to secure a certain number of votes to pass the bill out of the House, and some of us were told: “Don’t worry, the Senate will take care of the caps”. So was the forewarned “unraveling” one of policy or political posturing?

VTDigger.org reported a sponsor of the bill referring to the caps as: “A straightforward way to communicate the Legislature’s attempt to take pressure off of property taxpayers”. Is communicating an attempt to address property taxes sufficient? There was widespread talk during the campaign and after the election about reforming our education funding system by reducing the reliance on property tax, among other measures, but this appears to have taken a back seat once again to consolidation and governance changes that will take years to realize cost-savings.

I hope the Senate will remove the caps and find a more targeted and dynamic way of managing spending that doesn’t have the unintended (or intended) effect of further destabilizing schools that would be viable and successful but for unfortunate quirks in how education dollars are raised and spent.  There’s no doubt Vermont is experiencing a transition in demographics, economics, and education governance possibly comparable to the time when we went from dispersed single-room schoolhouses to larger centralized schools. But how far away from our communities are we comfortable sending our kids to be educated, and how many kids will there be to educate in the first place? More importantly, what kinds of 21st Century challenges are we educating our children to meet? We still need to ask and answer these questions.

In other news, the budget and tax bills saw plenty of behind-the-scenes dealmaking, with representatives choosing to support the least worst solutions, rejecting the majority decisions altogether, or simply voting to prevent committing “political suicide” or being relegated to “political Siberia”. To their credit, the House Appropriations Committee did an admirable job of balancing budget cuts with the new revenue streams they were handed. An attempt was made to modify tax brackets to pre-2009 levels in response to income shifts, but that was quickly defeated. If an economic system is out of balance because it depends in large measure on a stream of revenue that itself is unbalanced (and according to an analysis by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the U.S. Census, and the University of Minnesota, Vermont has the second highest level of income disparity and middle-class shrinkage in the nation after Wisconsin), it stands to reason that the inputs into the system need to be adjusted accordingly. But if you adjust marginal tax rates on the top earners by reverting to pre-2009 rates you might lose potential donors to your next statewide campaign. And that message trickles down.

One morning last week we were treated during the morning devotional to a performance of traditional Armenian music, which was soon followed by a resolution commemorating the Armenian genocide 100 years ago, during which more than one million Armenians were killed or deported by the Ottoman Empire (the Turks) in what is regarded as the first genocide of the modern era. Coincidentally, the Turkic Cultural Center of Vermont held their annual reception and press conference in the building that very afternoon and gave out samples of Turkish Delight. Strange days.

Share this on social media…