Eric Davis: Education is struggling in Vermont

Education has been the subject of much Vermont news in recent weeks. Considerable attention was devoted to the Scott Administration’s proposals to restrain K-12 spending growth by establishing caps on per-pupil spending and student-to-staff ratios. These proposals will be the focus of much debate in Montpelier.
This debate will concentrate on inputs: how much money the schools spend, or how many staff they employ. The administration’s proposals give less attention to the outcomes of K-12 education: how much do students learn, how many of them are prepared for higher education and go on to such education, and, for those who do not undertake further study, what kinds of jobs they get upon completing high school.
Two sets of testimony presented to legislators last week contained disturbing information about educational outcomes in Vermont. First, Jeb Spaulding, chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges, noted that while Vermont’s high school graduation rate of 87 percent is relatively high on a nationwide basis, it is relatively low when compared with other states in New England and the Northeast.
More importantly, Vermont now has the lowest high school-to-college continuation rate of any New England state. Only 60 percent of Vermont high school graduates enroll in further education programs within 18 months of receiving their diplomas. Spaulding also noted that college continuation rates are strongly related to family income, with students from lower-income households much less likely to continue their education after high school.
The other testimony was presented by consulting economist Tom Kavet, who briefs legislators and the administration on the Vermont economy several times a year. Kavet reported that while Vermont’s headline unemployment rate is only 2.9 percent, the fifth-lowest in the nation, an increasing share of the new jobs created in the last 10 years are low-paid and/or part-time. These are the jobs that many Vermont high school graduates who do not go on to further education find themselves in a few years after graduating from high school.
Such jobs typically pay between $10 and $15 an hour, and may only provide 25 to 35 hours of work a week. A young Vermonter working full-time at $12.50 an hour will earn about $25,000 annually. According to the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office, a single Vermonter needs an income of about $33,000 annually (about $37,000 in Chittenden County) to maintain a “basic needs budget.”
U.S. Census data show that Vermont was one of only four states where the poverty rate increased from 2015 to 2016; 11.9 percent of Vermonters had incomes below the federally defined poverty line, which varies according to size of household and age, in 2016.
Taken together, these data show that an increasing share of young Vermonters are unable to afford an in-state public higher education. This is not a surprising conclusion when Vermont has the lowest state appropriation per full-time college student of any state in the nation. And if these young people do not go on to college, many are unlikely to find a job that will let them earn enough money to support themselves, not to mention a possible future family, at a minimally adequate level.
Vermont’s entire education system may very well need radical change, in terms of funding models, organization and curriculum. Continuing to spend more money per K-12 student than almost all other states in the nation, while at the same time seriously underfunding public higher education, having too many children arriving in kindergarten or first grade not ready to learn (often because of family and social conditions beyond their control) and not giving non-college bound students the skills and experience needed for jobs that pay a decent income, is a combination that will not contribute to the long-term well-being of Vermont.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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