Editorial: Of gun control and school finance

It’s been almost seven weeks since the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, at which 17 students and teachers were gunned down by an 18-year-old former student with an assault rifle, who also seriously wounded 17 others. The next day, Vermont police arrested a former student at Fair Haven High School for  threatening to carry out a mass shooting there. In that case the police produced a journal from the student which detailed his deadly intent in no uncertain terms.
That journal was enough to convince Gov. Phil Scott that Vermont could do more to reduce the potential for such gun violence in Vermont’s schools and throughout the state.
What followed has been nothing short of a political earthquake led by Vermont’s student population in league with other students across the country. The earthquake has been possible because of the recent escalation in the number of mass gun shootings in America. The cry, “Enough is enough!” reflects the frustration, resentment and deep anger many Americans feel toward policies that have created an atmosphere of fear in classrooms across the country, as well as in any mass gathering.
With several gun control measures approved by Vermont’s Legislature and which have the imminent approval of the governor, its passage will overshadow all other legislative accomplishments of the session. And perhaps that’s OK.
Nonetheless, on the tax front Democrats in the House passed H.911, which attempts to rejigger the education finance formula to make it less dependent on the property tax, more transparent and easier to understand. But it misses the mark. Rather, it would likely create more confusion, could incentivize more school spending (rather than working on getting more value from the significant amount the state already spends), and could prevent more serious reform of a system all agree needs tweaking.
In an interview with former Rep. John Freidin, now a Middlebury resident and one of the authors of Act 60 (see story Page 1A), he is not shy about pointing out the short-comings of the proposed legislation as well as its benefits, but also offers an easier solution: Simply eliminate the education property tax on primary residences and leave in place a 100 percent income-based system for residents. That solution, Freidin says, would “end the problems with the school property taxes on homes and the Common Level of Appraisal, would be simple and easy to understand, would be based on ability to pay, would directly connect voters to the decisions they make when voting on school budgets, and would ensure that everyone paid an equitable share of educating Vermont’s children while continuing to provide all students with equal access to resources.”
Perhaps the Senate will improve upon the legislation, but it’s doubtful it will do so in a way to escape the governor’s threatened veto.
Rather, now that the Legislature seems to be in a mood to adopt the income tax as a way to help fund education (something Rep. Freidin and a few others tried to do 21 years ago but failed, and had to compromise with the more complicated formulas under Act 60 and Act 48), it’s worth working on that over the summer in legislation that could be discussed statewide and thoroughly vetted. It’s instructive to recall that Act 60 was three years in the making, and while controversial, achieved many of its objectives and has stood the test of time — often being hailed as one of the better models for fairness in school funding in the country.
A similar process might yield more thoughtful changes that could also provide the flexibility needed to meet the highly variable needs in communities throughout the state. That might not be possible, but at the very least it should be one of the goals.
Angelo Lynn

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