Community Forum: Reforms, taxes and Uncle Milton

This week’s writer is William J. Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center and a member of the Vermont State Board of Education.
Somewhere in everybody’s family tree is an Uncle Milton. Always smiling and backslapping, he treats everyone like his favorite nephew, and no wish is too much for his generosity. Enjoying the flattery, he takes the family out for dinner. It has happened too many times to be a coincidence but when the check comes, he’s always gone to the restroom.
My cousin Ralph said he should run for the Legislature. He is always in favor of a good cause but never wants to pay for it. This way, he glories in the credit he gets for supporting popular ideas but suffers none of the criticism for having to raise the taxes to pay for it.
Welcome to the conflicting incentives of the legislative process.
And so it is in education. It is a strange paradox that we enjoy the best staffing ratios in the country and are high spenders at the local level but the state agency is starved to the point it cannot properly administer the array of good and laudable programs.
Let’s look at the major new programs added in the past few years:
• The consolidation or governance law (Act 46) draws down considerable local and state planning resources. Planning grants are available but these come out of the education fund. What that means is you pay for your own grant.
• The preschool law (Act 166), which is our wisest investment but costs $3,000 per child.
• The “dual enrollment” law (Act 77) pays tuition to 2,217 high school students who take college courses. A boon to our starved higher education system, the cost of this program is out of local school funds and the state education fund. However, the local high school has to continue to offer a full range of courses while simultaneously paying college tuition.
• Personalized learning plans (Act 77) are required for all students, grades seven through 12, and are funded out of local budgets.
• Demonstration of proficiency. While established in earlier statute, the new demonstration process is required by 2020. This costs a great deal of staff time at the state and local levels.
• State quality monitoring is required by law, review of independent schools rules is overdue, and the shadow of new federal law hangs over our heads.
After enacting this impressive array of laudable laws, what does the Legislature do to support the expeditious and fruitful accomplishment of these laws? Pulling a page from Uncle Milton, they express their dismay at the rising uncontrolled costs of education, put a spending penalty on local districts for their profligate spending, and head for the restroom.
Yet, as a percent of state gross product, Vermont school costs have been stable since the 1990s, says the Public Assets Institute. Budgets for next year increase 1.5 percent even though health insurance increased a whopping 7.9 percent. So where do the costs for the new programs come from? They are pushed on to the property tax.
Reflecting a sound research base, all of these are good and worthwhile programs. And it doesn’t take much clairvoyance to see increasing demands in the future. The lack of well-paying jobs leads to human services crises, opioid use should scare us all and the economic bifurcation of our society will only make the achievement gap grow larger.
Meanwhile, the general assembly continues to dally with new programs. School discipline, a cloud of bills on school choice, special education funding, career education, data-based decision making, licensing, radon testing and nutrition. So the danger is that with the new mandated programs and inadequate support, it threatens high quality and effective implementation.
Instead of further jamming the system, there are a number of refinements, tweaks and adjustments to existing laws that need to be fixed. Of paramount concern is that the dual enrollment and preschool programs were designed with inherently regressive features. While enhancing college and preschool opportunities are among the best places for investment, both programs bestow disproportionate advantages on the more affluent, which can cause our achievement and opportunity gaps to grow wider. This raises both legal and ethical questions.
Uncle Milton is beloved by all the family but he has to either quit ordering the lobster or put his hand in his pocket. For our state government if we spread our limited resources over too great an area, we risk broad failure of many of our finest programs. Before we go out to dinner, we have to know whether the dinner is nutritious and a good value, and whether we have money in our pocket when the check comes. If the reform has promise and we determine it is cost-effective, we must raise the revenue. We can’t stiff the family.

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