- File: Diana Bolton ©️ Seven Days
The powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which governs state tax policy, has embraced the Senate's approach of addressing systemic funding inequities by adjusting existing pupil-weighting formulas.
The remove represents an about-face for the committee, which spent weeks pursuing more sweeping reform to the education-funding system. That effort, however, faced pushback form the Agency of Education, influential education groups, and Burlington and Winooski representatives.
So the committee instead hastily rewrote the bill to align it more closely with recommendations of the Task Force on Pupil Weighting, which were contained in the original bill passed by the Senate. The committee passed the new version 11-0 on Thursday.
The committee reversed course Tuesday after its vice chair, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro), said she realized there was not enough support for such a major policy change during a pandemic, despite her committee's “quite valiant work” to come up with system that focused more on the actual costs incurred by districts.
“It’s a lot of change during a very difficult time in all of our lives,” Kornheiser told colleagues.
When the Senate advanced the bill last month, members of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity were optimistic it would enjoy broad support. The coalition — a group of school board members representing more than 20 school districts across the state — has been advocating for more than a year for a fix to the funding formula based on the recommendations of a December 2019 study co-authored by researchers at the University of Vermont and Rutgers University.
That study examined the state’s practice of pupil weighting — counting certain students, such as those living in poverty or learning English, as more than one to account for the fact that they cost more to educate than the typical student. Higher pupil weights don’t translate directly to more money for a school district. Rather, they’re used to calculate a district’s per-pupil spending, which then affects local property tax rates. Districts with high numbers of weighted pupils can provide more services without hiking taxes.
The authors of the study concluded that the state's current funding system was severely flawed: Some districts had been “underweighted” — or less able to serve disadvantaged students — for decades. They recommended significantly increasing the weights for poor students and English Language Learners and adding new weights for students in small or rural schools.
The bill the Senate signed off on in March called for the weights recommended in the study to be phased in within five years. It also included a provision aimed specifically at districts with small numbers of English learners. Under the bill, schools with one to five English learners would receive an additional $25,000 annually, while schools with six to 25 English learners would get an extra $50,000 — which could be used to fund staff members to support those students.
“We were ecstatic,” said Alex Yin, a member of the coalition and the Winooski school board, of the Senate’s bill. “It felt like they had listened to us.”
But the House Ways and Means committee initially took a different approach. Instead of adjusting the weights, House members promoted a cost adjustment, or cost equity, model, in which students in categories that cost more to educate would be assigned a set dollar amount each year. Districts would receive "equity payments" annually for each of those students from the state education fund that they would deduct from their overall budget before calculating per pupil spending and tax rate. Last week's draft of the House bill called for districts to initially get a payment of $25,335 for each English learner, $10,480 for each student whose family is at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty line and between $712 and $1,526 for students living in areas with low population density. Those amounts would be recalibrated every year.
The cost adjustment model would have effectively eliminated the need to have an equalized pupil count, which some say is one of the most confusing components of the current funding system.
In seeing the transformation of the bill from the Senate to the House, “I think we were all shocked,” Coalition for Vermont Student Equity member and Burlington school Commissioner Martine Gulick said. “I think we’re baffled as to why [the House Ways and Means Committee] didn’t want to go with what was recommended by the experts, the folks who did the groundwork on this.”
Education Secretary Dan French advocated for the weighting approach. In testimony to House Ways and Means, French said with all the burdens on the school system right now, he would favor the simplest solution to eliminate funding inequities.
“My assessment would be weights are a simpler approach at this point,” French told the committee.
Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, also spoke in support of weights. Francis said the superintendents he’s spoken to prefer the weights rather than moving to a system that could be “administratively burdensome.”
But House members also heard from proponents of the cost-adjustment version of the bill. Paul Cillo, president of public-policy think tank Public Assets Institute, said he believes that implementation of the weights would benefit higher-spending districts more than lower-spending ones, thus increasing the disparity between the two. Cillo also warned that the weighting proposal would further complicate the state’s education-funding system for voters, because implementing the large weights recommended by the study would lead to equalized pupil counts further from the actual number of students that school districts have.
But Agency of Education finance manager Brad James wrote in an email to Seven Days that he didn’t believe the weights would affect the equalized pupil count the way Cillo described. James said the assertion that weighting would widen the gap between higher- and lower-spending districts was not "accurate in all cases."
Coalition members said they feel a sense of urgency for legislators to pass a bill to correct education-funding inequities this legislative session.
Ten state legislators representing Burlington and Winooski wrote a letter to House leadership, as well as the chairs of the House Committee on Ways and Means and House Committee on Education, expressing their concern over the direction the bill had taken and urging members to “seriously consider” the Senate’s version of the bill.