File: James Buck ©️ Seven Days
Sixth graders at Essex Middle School
Free school meals are in and discriminatory mascots are out. That's the upshot of two bills Gov. Phil Scott signed on Tuesday: S.100, an act related to universal school meals; and S.139, an act related to non-discriminatory school branding.
Under an emergency federal authorization, K-12 students have been eating school breakfast and lunch for free since the start of the pandemic, but that funding dries up at the end of this school year. The new law will provide school meals to all public school students, as well as independent school students using public funds to pay tuition. S.100 also calls for a report on the program and an examination of ways to fund it in the future.
With the passage of S.100, "Vermont’s school nutrition programs will be able to focus on offering students top quality meals without the distractions of collecting money for unpaid debt," said Scott Fay, president of the School Nutrition Association of Vermont.
The Vermont Legislative Joint Fiscal Office estimates the program will cost $29 million, which will come from the Education Fund.
Advocacy group Hunger Free Vermont worked to rally support for the bill, arguing that every student should have access to a healthy breakfast and lunch while at school. The group cited research that showed universal school meals improve both academic and health outcomes for students.
This year’s state budget also extended funding for Vermont’s Local Food Incentive Grant Program, and increased annual funding for the Farm to School and Early Childhood Program. The program helps schools and early childhood centers purchase food directly from Vermont farms and producers.
Under S.139, meanwhile, the Vermont Agency of Education must develop a model policy by August 1 that prohibits school branding — defined as mascots, nicknames, logos, letterheads, team names, slogans and mottos — "that directly or indirectly references or stereotypes the likeness, features, symbols, traditions or other characteristics" specific to "the race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity of any person or groups of persons." School boards will then have until January 1, 2023, to adopt and implement the state policy and review their school district's branding to ensure compliance.
Several school districts in the state may be required to make changes based on the new law. In 2020, Rutland City's school commissioners voted to ditch its Raiders moniker after a group of students and alumni presented evidence that the mascot was linked to crude and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans. But in January, a new group of school board members voted to reinstate the Raiders name
. The school board plans to revisit the mascot discussion at its August school board meeting, after the state has released its model policy, board member Alison Notte said.
And in October 2021, the Green Mountain Union School District school board voted to "rebrand" Green Mountain Union High School's mascot by removing its logo — a profile of a Native American person wearing a feather headdress — but kept the Chieftains name. In February, board chair Joseph Fromberger said the school district would likely need to reevaluate the issue if S.139 was passed.
Last week, Gov. Scott signed another education bill, S.287, known as the pupil weighting bill. It adjusts the school funding formula with the goal of creating a more equitable system.
Pupil weighting refers to the practice of counting certain groups of students as more than one to represent the fact that they cost more to educate than the typical student. The new funding formula increases weights, which are used to calculate a district's per-pupil spending, for those who live in poverty and are learning English.
But in signing the bill, Scott noted in a letter to legislators that he believes their work in revamping the state's complicated education funding system has just begun.
"We must acknowledge, S.287 does not guarantee more equal opportunities for kids. These new weights give certain schools the ability to spend more, but this bill does not require investment of these additional resources directly in students. Nor does new spending capacity mean there will be better outcomes," Scott wrote.
The Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, a group of school board members representing more than 20 districts across the state, fought doggedly for the bill's passage. In a statement last week, the coalition's board of directors thanked both the governor and legislators for their support.
"This correction is long overdue, and we are deeply appreciative of the current legislature for finally getting it done," coalition members wrote. "We know it was difficult work at times. But you put action behind your words and voted overwhelmingly for progress and real, tangible equity."