Spotlight on the Vermont Senate race 2018: How would you approach education issues?
The six candidates for the Senate seats representing Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore were asked to comment on five important issues.
Today, for the fourth issue, we asked each of them to address education with the following prompt:
First, the ratio of cost to quality outcomes is the primary issue in education/cost of living. What specific measures would you propose to get the best value out of the educational dollars we currently spend? Would you seek to reduce total education spending as student population declines? Do you support the initiatives under Act 46 as a way to help contain education costs and improve educational opportunities for the smallest schools? Write 350-500 words.
Second, do you think the state needs to establish early education programs and, if so, how would you fund them? Similarly, Vermont has a shortage of early childcare providers (infants to 3 years old) that is placing a huge burden on young families — costing a small fortune in most cases and keeping young parents out of the workforce. What specific plans would you propose to address this problem? 250-350 words.
Marie Audet — Independent
I may be known as the candidate for agriculture and the environment, but my passion for continually improving education for all Vermonters is just as great. The lives of my own children have been shaped in many wonderful ways by the dedicated teachers in our local schools. I want the same for all of Vermont’s children, and I want all of our teachers to feel supported in their good work.
The next generation of my family is currently experiencing the challenge of finding and affording childcare while trying to balance their careers. I know they are not alone in this. The time is now to address these needs as it goes hand-in-hand with ensuring a sound economy for young families to live and work in Vermont. We know that early childhood education and after-school programs can enhance future education outcomes and socialization of children. Because birth to age 5 is a critical time for developing the physical, intellectual, and emotional skills necessary for success later in life, providing high-quality early education may help to alleviate some of the challenges children face in K-12.
I am encouraged by the considerable amount of groundwork that is being done. Building Bright Futures, for example, has been collaborating since May 2017 on a report to the legislature on a pathway to an early care and learning system. I agree with their assessment that “equitable early care and learning for all children ages birth to five is the most significant investment Vermont can make to provide the greatest positive impact for future generations.” There is also a new Tobacco Settlement-funded program that will study after-school programs as a preventative strategy in combating the opioid epidemic. I’d like to see a day where Vermont is a leader in providing all families with affordable, high-quality childcare.
As in business, and in life, we need to adapt to change. We must recognize the changing needs in education. While I do not advocate reducing what we spend on education, I do support refocusing our priorities. Can we shift some of what we spend on K-12 to birth-to-five? Can we make a greater investment in the early years to prevent some of the challenges we see in K-12? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I think they worth exploring.
I also cannot ignore the greatest concern I hear every day from Vermonters: affordability. In particular, everyone would like to know what I am going to do to reduce property taxes, which is how we fund our education system. Can we consider that it might be time to move some of our education costs from property taxes to the general fund? Let’s continue to support our children with all aspects of their growth and safety, and let’s discuss if there might be a better, more equitable way to pay for it.
Act 46 is the law in Vermont. It passed after much study, discussion and debate. The intent is to provide equity in quality of our education statewide and maximize operational efficiencies. Most of the Addison District made out well in capturing incentives that were written into the law to achieve these goals. Two of our communities, Huntington and Orwell, are struggling with this law; they are concerned that their community as they know it is threatened. I am listening to their concerns and will continue to be engaged as we sort this out, if elected.
Christopher Bray — Democrat
EDUCATION QUESTION 1
Education is Bigger than K-12 and the ABCs.
To answer this question, it’s essential to define what we mean by “education,” because in a rapidly evolving global economy that demands lifelong learning, education no longer means just the years we spend from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade and possible post-secondary education. It’s lifelong. And it’s also broader and deeper than just academics; it also involves health, wellbeing, and becoming a secure and productive member of our communities.
This broader role of schools is often under-appreciated when we have education funding discussions. Though we call all the money flowing to a school “education dollars,” in fact, these funds also support the entire community: in addition to educating children, schools serve to deliver public health programs, including wellness and counseling, to students and their parents; food programs offer children breakfast, lunch and an afternoon meal; citizens use school facilities for public events and recreation; and more.
In short, schools are the place at which many programs not commonly thought of as education are delivered. And communities use schools as one element in a continuum of services to deliver early care, education, and health services, from birth through age 22.
Returning to the question posed — “how to get the best value out of education dollars” — I would propose analysis first and actions second — specifically:
• Revise the accounting system used for school budgets to distinguish “core educational services” (teaching) from “social services” (food, counseling, public health). We need to know how much we’re paying for what services before we determine whether we are spending too much or too little.
• For social services delivered through schools, analyze funding options other than the property tax. For example, outside of education, Vermont pays for social services through the General Fund, not the Education Fund. This could provide property tax relief.
• For the social services elements of the budget, analyze (i) whether or not schools are the best place at which to deliver the services; and (ii) for the services that are best delivered at schools, who can most cost-effectively deliver them?
• For both educational and social services at our schools, we can improve their effectiveness by reaching out to the population from birth to 5 to help our youngest students arrive ready to learn and succeed. In a similar way, we need to work with high school graduates to help ensure successful transitions into further education and employment.
Following such analysis and reorganization, we will see lower “education” costs. At the same time, because so many Addison County residents struggle (e.g. 1 in 9 families live in poverty, and 1 in 6 children is food insecure), it seems likely that total spending will remain level for the age group birth to 22, other than efficiency savings.
Turning to ACT 46, this law was designed first and foremost to provide for equal educational opportunity; the cost savings potential varies greatly by school and school district, and it is not possible to responsibly assert that the act will produce savings for all districts. We are still in the phase of organizing mergers and “alternative structures.” We will need to see how schools operate before we can draw general conclusions. With time, we will also be able to discern best practices in the new and alternative districts in order to enhance education or reduce costs, and, in some cases, both.
EDUCATION QUESTION 2
Addison County, and Vermont more broadly, needs a truly affordable and accessible system of childcare. Here are some daunting recent statistics that underline this challenge:
• Our county has approximately 175 slots for children under 2, but each year 300 children are born—yielding an under-2 population of 600 for fewer than 200 places. Some parents are registering and paying to get their coming baby on waiting lists before the child’s birth.
• 72 percent of the families with children under 6 have all parents working, further expanding the need for quality childcare prior to entering full-time kindergarten.
• Most childcare programs have waiting lists of 5 or less, but some centers have waiting lists of 20.
• The average cost per child in early childcare centers is $12,000 to $16,000, with parents on average paying 50% of the cost.
Steps to take:
For children from birth to 6, we need to fully fund the childcare subsidy program, which has not been adequately adjusted for inflation, and is currently approximately $9.6M underfunded. This increased funding can help in two ways: (i) it can increase the subsidy, making childcare more affordable for parents; and (ii) it can support better pay for childcare workers, whose generally low wages causes high employee turnover, making building and maintaining a high quality program difficult.
The funding for this increased subsidy should originate in the General Fund, not the Education Fund. Because our state economy is growing, the needed money could come from that growth, from shifting dollars, or from new revenues. That complex decision-making is best resolved, in tandem, by the Finance and Appropriations Committees.
With the state’s declining number of students, schools have an opportunity to take unused classrooms and to convert them into childcare “centers” within the school. Such conversions can jump-start the number of childcare programs, and because such centers would be located at the schools, this eases the challenge faced by parents who now often have to take their pre-school and school-age children to two or more different facilities and locations — all before getting themselves to work.
Peter Briggs — Republican
Act 46 dealt with consolidating school boards and districts, not the driving cost of education, which is teacher and staff pay, and a 1:4 staff to student ratio — the lowest in the country. There is no “cost containment” in Act 46. Add to that, there was a $65 million surplus and taxes still went up on 65 percent of Vermonters. Vermont spends $20,000 per pupil, the highest in the nation, with outcomes only at the national average. We can do better.
Improvements will come with a system that includes choice and competition. This system has worked for over 150 years and is used in 90 towns in Vermont right now. Each pupil gets $15,500 (currently) and the parents can send them to whichever non-religious school they choose.
Some towns are starting to close their local public schools and re-open them as independent schools. Local communities are beginning to reclaim power from the Agency of Education. Besides the $4,500 savings, experience has shown that academic scores go up as teachers make decisions based on the need of their pupils and not the mandates from Montpelier, as happened at the Mountain School in Winhall. Parents who live in choice towns have fought to block many of the mergers that threaten school choice.
If Montpelier continues in the same direction of making ever larger school government systems and diminishing the power of the local schools then there is no doubt in my mind that public schools will diminish as technology eclipses them. Just as Uber and Airbnb have changed the taxi and the hotel industry, so will the internet and computers make a learning environment that is flexible and adaptable to the individual child’s needs. This is why I support school choice as I see it as the only way to keep public schools relevant in our modern society.
I do not support the idea of forcing a child into the classroom before their brain is developed enough to handle the learning, or equally important, the social pressures that come with early institutionalization.
Scientific research has found as far back as the 1970’s that the best environment for children under the age of 7 is the home life, where pressure is low and they spend time in physical exercise in close proximity to mothers or fathers. With America’s childhood obesity problem, requiring students to spend the majority of their time indoors in sedentary conditions is adding to the problem when active exercise is crucial to develop a well-balanced physiology. If we are serious about helping children, then making a good home life for them in their early years must be a priority.
Vermont’s shortage of home-based early childcare providers was made worse when the legislature imposed many stringent rules and regulations on them, increasing their costs or forcing them out of business. This is what happens when government over-regulates an entity that did not need it, causing more harm than good. For those parents that need childcare, and are not finding it available or affordable anymore, there is a critical first step to be made — de-regulate the childcare providers.
Archie Flower — Libertarian
Education is the only tool we have as a society to pass the torch of civilization to the next generation; it is therefore crucial to take as holistic a view as possible of the challenges we face in providing a quality education for Vermont children. In 2016 we spent just shy of eighteen thousand dollars per student for one year. This is fifty two percent higher than the national average, and places our spending as the fourth largest amount per pupil among the states. Spending this high is entirely unacceptable — we must learn to do better in order to create a sustainable, reliable means to ensure a quality education for all Vermont children; now and for all generations to come.
One thing we must do better, and which can in part be centralized, is the sharing of digital resources. High speed internet linking all of our schools together can help create the economies of scale that Act 46 was crafted to take advantage of. The internet is, by many orders of magnitude, the largest library humanity has ever built. We can take the best and richest of this content, much of it offered at low or no cost, and leverage the digital world to our advantage. This would also allow more specialized subjects to be more accessible to a wider audience at lower costs.
Act 46 may well have the noblest of intentions, yet it squarely faces off against core Vermont values of local control, community connection and engagement, and frugality. It may seem on the surface to offer cost savings in the long term, but the truest cost savings comes from being connected to those whom you serve — there is no closer a connection than neighbor-to-neighbor access, and control over the school budget. Montpelier wants to centralize control in education and pretty much everything else. They’ve forgotten their role is one of service rather than control, one of duty rather than fiat rule.
Thus far we’ve spoken only of monetary costs — but I’d like to take a moment now to discuss the unseen costs, the opportunities missed due to the current system being so rigid and bureaucratic. The goal of our educational system is all too often lost in the shuffle of paperwork. We have amazing people working in these schools; teachers and staff that truly do have the best interests of our children at heart. We need a less rigid institution, empowered and commissioned to truly help our children reach for their full potentials.
If you choose to elect me to the Senate I’ll work to repeal Act 46. I’ll work to create and expand educational choices, including private and home schooling options. I’ll work to enhance local controls over our educational institutions, including parental controls over where their money is spent. Market forces ensure that increasing options will of necessity decrease costs, improve opportunities for access, and improve quality of results — ensuring our children have the very best start in life we can give them.
Advancing options for early education is certainly a praiseworthy goal — but as the saying goes, you can’t get blood from a rock. The economy is on everyone’s mind these days, and for good reason. No matter how the numbers are played out on the news screen or the Dow Jones index, people feel the economy in their day-to-day lives and understand we’re only treading water. It isn’t the popular thing for a politician to say, but we’re currently more than three billion in debt and there is simply no room to expand educational spending in a budget which must be cut.
The middle class has shrunk dramatically, the nuclear family has been breaking down for decades. All of these social and economic forces work to conspire against young families just starting out, leaving them few options or eliminating options completely. The problem is multi dimensional and varied through time. Which is why it remains so resistant to central planning and so susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. Our legislators may have the finest of motives and the purest of ideals, but they are as limited by the human condition as the rest of us. When trying to correct one condition they end up creating two or three more.
What Montpelier must do is start restraining itself. It must stop acting like every Vermont business can be run from the Golden Dome. It must find a cure for its addiction to control and micro-management. We must cut our overregulation. When businesses are run by entrepreneurs again we will see our economy start to heal — and when this happens the downward spiral will become an upward spiral. When we have more families with two adults where only one of them needs to work, all families will have more options. Our communities and neighbors don’t need Montpelier to solve our problems, we need them to get out of our way.
Ruth Hardy — Democrat
I am the mother of school-aged children, served on local school boards, and have spent years working on education issues. I chaired the Mary Hogan School Board, co-chaired the ACSU unification committee, and chaired the ACSD finance committee. I began my career as an education finance analyst and later worked for the College budget office. I have a deep understanding of education budgets, finance, and policy.
School funding must be stable, sufficient, equitable, and sustainable. School boards cannot appropriately plan if they don’t know what to expect from year to year. We must ensure funding meets the needs of students regardless of where they live or attend school, and that our funding mechanism is fair and reasonable for the resources of our small state and its residents. As a school board leader, I regularly oversaw a budget process that invested in student opportunities and equity, secured budget reductions where most appropriate, and advanced the fiscal health of the school district.
Unification of governance under Act 46 has been successful for most area schools, with benefits and challenges emerging as schools adjust to the new structure. Not all towns have supported unification; I respect their democratic decisions and expect discussions will be ongoing as they strive to serve their students well. In ACSD, unification has enabled a new curriculum, enhanced educational equity, expanded opportunities for many students, and spurred solid budget savings and lower property taxes for many towns.
However, these gains didn’t stem from singular ratios or measurements, but rather through engaged communities, strong leadership and communication, excellent teachers, and a local commitment to education. As enrollment continues to decline, we must prioritize student opportunities, improve equity, and maintain a realistic assessment of the viability of our smallest schools.
While Vermont has strong schools, not all students succeed equally. Students living in poverty, English language learners, students with disabilities, and students of color are often not served well by schools that lack the resources, diversity, and expertise to meet their needs. Technical education is often not well integrated, so some students miss valuable skill-based learning opportunities. While Vermont boasts a robust high school graduation rate, too few Vermonters complete higher education at traditional or technical colleges.
Over the past two decades as the number of students has declined, the needs of students have increased. Addison County faces increasing poverty; 41 percent of elementary students now qualify for free and reduced lunch. Schools serve as ground zero for supporting children, providing expanded food programs, mental health counseling, homelessness assistance, and social services. These increased needs strain school staff and budgets.
Our small towns and schools are vital to Vermont. Thus, robust local engagement in school decisions is important, including listening to students about their experiences and goals. Recently we have asked a lot of our school boards, teachers, and students. I have been proud to be a part of this engagement and change. We need to allow the results of this work to solidify while always keeping student needs front and center.
High-quality care and education for our youngest Vermonters is one of the most important long-term investments we can make to support the health of children and families, augment economic and gender equality, stimulate economic development, and enhance educational outcomes. As a state senator, ensuring access to high-quality early childhood education and care would be one of my priorities.
Our communities are fortunate to have strong early childhood programs, including pioneers like the Parent-Child Center and Mary Johnson Children’s Center, as well as excellent home-based and school-centered programs. New public-private partnerships, such as the program at Whiting School, could supply collaborative and innovative blueprints for providing early care, enhancing rural economic development, and supporting families where they live.
I have served on boards of early childhood programs, led efforts to sustain the Middlebury Cooperative Nursery School after significant financial hurdles, and worked as a school board member to maintain pre-kindergarten partnerships between local schools and early childhood programs.
My plan for expanding early childhood programs would include:
• Support young families through passage of paid family leave legislation providing at least 10 weeks of paid time off for parents to care for new babies, newly adopted children, or ill family members.
• Make childcare more affordable by increasing subsidies for Vermonters with low incomes and incrementally expanding universal early childhood education beyond 10 hours per week for 3- and 4-year-olds.
• Enhance program quality, and support, retain, and attract early childhood educators by targeting wage increases, and increasing access to professional development through scholarships and loan forgiveness programs.
• Expand program capacity through funding, technical assistance, and partnerships with new and existing centers, home-based providers, and schools to add capacity for infants and toddlers, co-locate programs in existing school buildings, and spark new programs in areas with the highest need.
• Secure funding through a mix of existing childcare and education funds, state and local economic development funds, new revenues from employee contributions, federal and state health care funding, and private sources.
I look forward to ensuring that any family who needs care for their children can find high-quality, affordable options close to home or work.
Paul Ralston — Independent
I do not agree with this paper’s statement that “The ratio of cost to quality outcomes is the primary issue in education.” The real issue is whether Vermonters are getting the education they need to prepare them for our changing world. The challenge is different and more difficult for our rural schools, so we need to be creative and flexible with education spending.
I have no intention of cutting school spending. I would, however, like to see a refocusing of resources on evolving educational priorities. These include early childhood education, skilled trade and professional training (for grades 7-12 and for adults seeking job retraining), and after-school programs. In some cases, particularly early childhood programs, we may actually need to increase spending on teachers and staff to attract enough qualified people to these professions.
There has been much discussion about changes to how we fund education spending. The property tax is a regressive tax, and while a majority of Vermonters qualify for “income sensitivity,” that program is only sensitive to lower income, not to higher incomes. As the mission of our schools expands to include important community services, such as medical and mental health, hunger and nutrition, student safety, drug and alcohol intervention, etc., I believe the funding sources should expand beyond the property tax.
While it would be a net-zero change in spending, I believe we should identify and quantify the services schools must provide that go beyond a traditional education mission. Those costs should be funded through the General Fund rather than the property tax. This would have the effect of lowering property taxes for all and increasing income taxes for a few. I believe it would be an equitable way to fund these important costs. I do not support moving all school funding to the income tax.
Our K-12 student population is in decline, and that has the effect of raising costs on a per-pupil basis. I would caution against significant downsizing of our school systems, because I strongly believe Vermont is nearing a time of new growth, and I hope and expect that will lead to population increases. Growth will come with increasing prosperity. Prosperity will come with increased affordability, increased housing, and increased access to good jobs close to home.
Our government created the law that we call Act 46. A lot of hard-working, smart people made their best attempt at addressing growing concerns about education costs and equity. We should carefully monitor the effects that Act 46 is creating, those intended and those unintended. It is the responsibility of government to make changes and adjustments to the law if evidence suggests changes are needed.
Look for candidate thoughts on health care and housing in next Thursday’s Addison Independent. Click here to read more in this series.