Education Op/Ed

Letter to the editor: Pupil weighting recommendations in question

In December a group of eight legislators will present pupil weighting recommendations as instructed by the legislature. Weighting is used as part of the state’s school funding formula. The Task Force will be using the work of a December 2019 UVM Report that focused on pupil weighting factors in Vermont and elsewhere around the nation.

Many Vermont stakeholders (representatives from many Vermont school districts, legislators, and various educational organizations) deemed Vermont’s current weighting formula to be out of date, thus the search for a more equitable formula. I’m not so sure this goal is attainable. There could be a better way. Here’s some background.

Pre-1997 all Vermont public schools were funded through the local property tax system. Budgets were approved and the tax rate against the town’s grand list (total property values) was set to raise the needed money. The 1997 court case Brigham vs. Vermont changed all that. The Vermont Supreme Court felt there was too wide a gap between funding in more affluent, property rich towns and cities, with large grand lists, versus smaller more rural communities with modest grand lists. The court determined there was not enough funding equity and stated that the state should take over funding for public education.

So now, the state sets the tax rate on homestead and non-homestead properties to raise money for the statewide public education bill. Included in the state’s funding formula is a weighting formula that assigns values to the number of pre-K and secondary school students, economically disadvantaged kids, and new English learners in each school district. Grants are also doled out for special education, transportation and small schools.

The Pupil Weighting Task Force’s job is to evaluate the state’s current grant and weighting funding programs and come up with something better, fairer, than what is applied today. Theoretically a new weighting formula that will lead to better student outcomes. Will their recommendation be fairer and lead to better schools?

When the state decided to act on the court’s recommendation and take over school funding, parents and local citizens influence on public education policies was diminished. When we think about the needs of school’s students, who better to figure that out than local school boards, teachers, and parents in each school. Let’s have the state devise the weighting information from the work local citizens and school staff does in creating their plans and budgets. Our communities should be telling the state what weighting is needed for their school. It is troubling that an eight-person task force can assign a statewide monetary value to students from economically challenged families or any other social category.

The 2019 UVM Report, that was to serve as a valuable research tool for the Task Force, also pointed out the difficulty in developing fair pupil weighting. Neither Vermont’s stakeholders nor those states that employ weighting, offered a clear pathway in developing weighting fairness. Weighting priorities vary in stated opinions and in fact.

There is also a possible funding problem. What happens, as a result of the new pupil weighting approach, when some districts receive less dollars (this would translate to a higher tax rate than previous years) while other districts receive greater state funding (lower tax rate)?

The goal of the pupil weighting task force is to recognize the differences in school’s student population and create a weighting formula that can translate appropriate money to equalize school opportunity for excellence. There are plenty of studies that enumerate the main factors that go into creating excellent public schools. None of these studies point out special weighting funding factors. The factors that come up repeatedly in these studies refer to administrative leadership that forge an inclusive culture, family and community involvement, clear educational goals and standards, a feeling of security for students and staff, and students being treated with respect, to name just some. These factors are created locally by school boards, staff, and the community.

Funding schools for their unique needs should be done from the bottom up, local schools dictating funding priorities, not the state. According to a recent VTDigger article, school officials, when asked by the folks in the Education Committees how can we help in the coming legislative session, legislators were told not to take any new action. Educators want time to deal with previous years mandates and legislation. This sounds like a good idea.

Fred Baser

Bristol

Editor’s note: The writer is a former state representative in the district including Bristol, Starksboro, Monkton and Lincoln.

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