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Guest editorial: Make schools more affordable? Wrong question.

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Posted on January 30, 2014 |
By Emerson Lynn



How Vermonters pay for their schools will be one of those issues that bubbles along the top of this year’s legislative session, catching a burst of attention here and there, ultimately signifying very little.

The difficulty was on display in mid-January at an education symposium at St. Michael’s College, one convened by Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislators. The governor is concerned about the impending seven cent increase in property taxes to pay for a school system that educates fewer and fewer students. He has asked for a thorough examination of the finance system we’ve had in place since the passage of Act 60 in 1997.

The symposium was moderated by Lawrence Picus, a national expert on school finance and a professor at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Mr. Picus has been through this exercise before in Vermont and in 2012 reported to the Legislature that its funding system worked well and that there was no need to consider any redesign outside what already exists.

Mr. Picus restated that same belief Tuesday.

And he’s correct. Mr. Picus could parenthetically offer a vote of congratulations to Vermont for succeeding where so many other states have failed. As an expert in how states fund their schools he has firsthand evidence in the damage being done by states that have cut below what is necessary. California is but one example, Kansas is another.

As he reportedly told yesterday’s audience, Vermont’s educational finance system has “good bones.” In other words, be careful not to harm that which is most central to your success.

Mr. Picus is to write another report summarizing the symposium and offering guidance for legislators as they proceed through the session.

No one is expecting anything dramatic to be proposed. It’s an election year and there is little appetite for any proposal that would turn the state’s educational financing system upside down.

But that’s also a good thing.

Because it’s the wrong question.

It’s not a question of figuring out different ways to raise the same amount of money, it’s a question of figuring out how to change the system we have to produce better outcomes.

Mr. Picus put his finger on it in his 2012 report when he noted that Vermont’s test scores were in the middling range when compared to other New England states, all of whom spend less per student than we do.

It’s like anything else; price is important, value, more so.

Any discussion of value must then include innovation, efficiency, and obviously, goals. And that invokes the tough questions. Is the 180-day school calendar enough? Should the length of the school day be increased? Should there be a higher standard for teachers? Should teachers be paid more in exchange for higher standards? Can the flexible pathways program be expanded? Can efficiencies be realized that would allow for a shift in spending that focuses more on the early years, and on schools with higher poverty rates? The goal should be to pair what we spend with what we should get. We spend more than any other state on a per student basis; our outcomes should reflect that investment.

To accept that goal also means rejecting some of the myths that we allow to excuse mediocrity. The first is the thought that our teachers have become glorified social workers and are required to be so much more than just teachers. That may be true. But it’s not Vermont specific. All teachers in all states feel the same obligations. That can’t be used as an excuse for why we pay more than others.

We need to accept the fact that our test results are good, but that they are not exceptional when stripped of their demographic bias. We’re a lily-white state and our results, matched against the same demographic in other states, put us a little above the national average.

We’re also at the bottom of the national heap when it comes to the percentage of graduating high school seniors going on to pursue secondary education degrees.

Again, it’s less a question of how we rearrange the billing and more a question of how to improve the value of what it is that we’re being billed.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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