- Diana Bolton
It's been almost two years since state Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover) first laid eyes on the Pupil Weighting Factors Report, a study of Vermont's complicated education funding formula that the legislature had commissioned.
Coauthored by University of Vermont professor Tammy Kolbe, the 150-page report examined a question Sibilia thought had an obvious answer: Does the state accurately calculate the cost of educating students?
As Sibilia had seen firsthand in her rural district, the answer is no. Vermont's "pupil weights" — the practice of counting certain students, such as those who live in poverty or are learning English, as more than one, to represent the fact that they cost more to educate than the typical student — were "historical artifacts" from almost 25 years ago, the report found, and not based on actual research. The authors recommended significantly hiking the weights for poor students and English language learners and adding weights for students enrolled in small or rural schools.
Weights are used to calculate a district's per-pupil spending, which subsequently plays into setting local property tax rates. Districts with high numbers of weighted students can provide more services without raising taxes and draw additional state aid.
Some districts have been "underweighted" — or less financially able to provide for students' needs — for decades.
"The reality on the ground in our community ... was that we could not fund anything that was not very basic," Sibilia said. High-quality afterschool programming and an honors curriculum were out of reach.
Nearly two years after the report's release, the legislature is working to change the weighting system and perhaps education funding more broadly. Using the report for guidance, a task force of eight state legislators has met twice monthly since June. By December 15, it must recommend legislation to provide equitable access to education.
The work has been plodding and cumbersome as legislators get up to speed on both the report and the education funding system, one of the most complex in the country. But the group's recommendations could set in motion large-scale reform that would impact Vermont students for decades.
"A deep and systemic injustice has been uncovered," Sibilia wrote to members of the task force on October 28. "Those of us in rural, poor and black and brown Vermont, who have had an entire generation of our students harmed by this system, believe you have been convened to correct those deep and systemic injustices."
But rather than give higher weights to districts with students who are learning English, the task force has proposed to instead provide "categorical aid" — state money that goes directly to the programs. That, some say, would not correct the inequity.
Winooski, for instance, says those grants would provide the district about $1 million less than the weights described in the report.
Task force cochair Sen. Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) said the panel is juggling needs from groups across the state.
"We've tried to be extremely thoughtful and thorough and comprehensive," she said, "so that when whatever we recommend goes to the legislature, we're able to answer all the questions we're going to get."
The quest for equity in Vermont schools is not a new one. Act 60, passed in 1997 following a Vermont Supreme Court decision, was intended to ensure that the property wealth of a town doesn't affect school funding.
After the 2019 release of what some refer to as the "Kolbe report," Education Secretary Dan French told lawmakers that they had to take "immediate action" to fix Vermont's funding formula. He said the current system likely violates the state constitution, which mandates equal educational opportunities for all students.
The weights recommended in the study would benefit high-poverty school districts such as Rutland City and Kingdom East, as well as those with a large percentage of students learning English, such as Burlington and Winooski. But giving more to those districts would sap some of the aid otherwise destined for more affluent, homogenous ones — making the issue contentious.
"The redistribution of wealth is a really hard subject," said Jen Botzojorns, superintendent of the "underweighted" Kingdom East district. "And most of the time, the people who have the wealth don't want to redistribute it."
As a school librarian who worked around the state, Martine Gulick saw how access to resources impacts schools. Before retiring in June, Gulick said, she had a staff of six assistants while working at the Essex High School library, which had a budget 10 times larger than Burlington's. Her counterparts in other districts, meanwhile, had one or two assistants, if any.
Such inequities are apparent in sports budgets, administrations, office staffing and even IT departments, said Gulick, who serves on the Burlington School Board.
After reading the Kolbe report, "it felt sort of like a light bulb went off," Gulick said.
But fixing the problem of inequity will require more than just flipping a switch. While the 2019 study focused solely on pupil weights, the task force is looking at Vermont's education funding system more broadly, Hardy said. It's considering a plan that would replace the current funding system with a more straightforward model, in which pupil weights would be translated to a dollar amount that would be distributed directly to districts.
The study also didn't factor in the COVID-19 pandemic or the reorganization of school districts under Act 46, Hardy added. The task force is "trying to take into consideration all the things that have changed since the report came out," she said.
The task force held two public hearings this fall. Overwhelmingly, speakers urged legislators to implement the weights proposed in the study. Many who testified were members of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a group of school board members, from Windham to Winooski, concerned about historic "underfunding" for some districts.
On November 4, the Vermont School Boards Association passed a resolution asking the legislature to implement the study's recommendations "thoughtfully and expeditiously."
A smaller group has said a major change in weighting could negatively impact some districts. Addison Northwest School District board chair John Stroupe told the task force in October that if the weights from the study were implemented as written, they would do "tremendous damage" to his district, which is located in the county Hardy represents.
"A lot of people would say, 'Well, tighten your belt. You can do more with less,'" Stroupe said. "And I will tell you that we already are bare bones in our education. This is not extravagant education in Vergennes and Addison County."
Edye Graning, board chair of Mount Mansfield Unified Union School District, told the task force last week that there would be "unintended consequences" of making changes to school funding.
"While the goal is to improve opportunities for certain students, this can only be done by decreasing opportunities for others, and that's where we're very concerned," Graning said.
Botzojorns, the Kingdom East superintendent, said she understands that all schools are struggling due to the pandemic, but some are hurting more than others. Her students come from small towns such as Burke, Lyndon, Lunenburg and Newark, where underfunding has led to major issues. One of her middle schools is in a decades-old mobile unit with rotting floors. Another building had mold and standing water in the basement.
Underweighting affects staffing, too. Currently, 39 Kingdom East teachers have provisional licenses, meaning that they are not fully qualified for the subject area they're teaching. In some of the district's schools, 20 percent of teachers leave every year.
"Folks come to our district, they get a couple of years under their belt, and then they head to another high-paying, more populated area," Botzojorns said. "Think about any organization where, every year, one-fifth of the people leave and what that does for climate and culture and the ability to have academic ... growth with children."
The most controversial issue may be deciding how to provide money for what are known as "English language learner" students. The task force wants to provide categorical aid, which would give districts with at least one English language learner a yearly base amount of $25,000, plus $5,000 for every additional such student.
According to Hardy, English language learning programs are well suited for categorical aid because the money needed to educate such students is fairly standard. Higher weights, meanwhile, would enable districts to increase their budgets without raising taxes — but wouldn't guarantee that the money goes to students learning English, she said.
Leaders in the Winooski School District, where one in three students are English language learners, strongly disagree.
"We've been doing this work for decades, and we've developed programs; we've cultivated staff and trust in the community," superintendent Sean McMannon said. "And then to say, 'We really don't trust you to spend this money' — it's such a slap in the face."
This fall, Winooski's finance manager, Nicole Mace, analyzed the categorical aid program alongside the pupil weights that the researchers proposed in their report. She found that the categorical aid would yield around $1.4 million, while the weights would translate to around $2.4 million.
Meanwhile, already "overweighted" neighboring districts, such as Essex-Westford, South Burlington and Champlain Valley, would get an increase in funding for their English language learners, exacerbating the inequities between Winooski and other Chittenden County schools, Mace said. Winooski is also poised to lose $345,000 next school year, as the state moves to a different special education financing model.
McMannon said the task force has not been transparent in detailing its most recent modeling or how members came up with the grant amounts.
While they still have three meetings left to hammer out the details, the task force has already begun drafting its final report, Hardy said. The group will have to find a way to lessen the blow for districts that might suddenly find themselves faced with either shrinking their budget or raising taxes, she said.
"Whatever we do is going to be a jolt to some school districts — it could be a positive jolt or a negative jolt," Hardy said. "But we want to make sure that those jolts are as smooth as possible, because we don't want them to impact kids."
That might mean rolling out changes gradually over three to five years. By mid-December, task force members want to draft a bill that they all back, Hardy said.
Winooski administrators hope they can change legislators' minds about the proposal.
"I think there's a lot of emphasis on complexity that's being talked about at the task force level," Mace said. But to her, it's actually pretty simple. "At its core," she said, "this is about a redistribution of resources so that we can ensure equity, and that is politically challenging."
More than 20 years ago, the state changed the way it funded education following a 1997 Vermont Supreme Court decision, Brigham v. State, that found the existing system — in which towns raised money for their schools through local property taxes — deprived students in property-poor towns of equal educational opportunities.
Under Act 60, passed later that year, owners of non-homestead property — such as land, second homes, apartment buildings and businesses — pay a fixed school tax rate, which goes into a state education fund. Local schools set their own budgets, but any two towns that vote to spend the same amount per pupil have the same homestead tax rate.
In the wake of Act 60, some property-rich towns — also known as "gold towns" — tried to fight back, worried about how the law would affect their children. In a 1999 article in Mother Jones magazine, David Goodman wrote about the anti-Act 60 groups that popped up in the mother of all gold towns — Stowe.
"I sympathize with the argument of other towns when they say, 'We've been paying for this all along,'" Stowe resident Donna Carpenter — wife of late Burton Snowboards founder Jake Burton Carpenter — said at the time. "But when someone tells me, 'Now it's your turn to feel the pain' — these are my kids!"
Act 68, passed in 2003, made revisions to Act 60, including a provision that penalized school districts for per-pupil spending that exceeded a certain threshold. The goal was to create a disincentive for wealthier districts to spend excessively. Instead, districts such as Rep. Laura Sibilia's often bumped up against that excess spending threshold because the real cost of educating kids in rural poverty was not taken into account.
"In the process of just trying to keep a basic school open in rural towns that were very isolated, you would hit the excess-spending threshold, and then you would have to pay double," Sibilia said. "The message that we were getting from the legislature is that our communities were just too dumb to realize that they needed to reduce their spending." That excess spending threshold is currently on a two-year pause while the pupil-weighting task force carries out its work.
Though Act 60 was effective in creating "equal per pupil spending for equal tax rates," it did not address the fact that students living in circumstances such as poverty require more services and resources to achieve the same outcomes as students in more affluent areas, Sibilia said.
"We need to think about the consequences of decades of underfunding our neediest school districts," Sibilia said, "and what that is doing to the fabric of our Vermont communities."