February 26, 2016
Contact: Rep. Don Turner
To Fix Vermont’s Education Spending Crisis, We Must Privilege Our Children Over Politics
Vermont ranks in the top ten states with the most debilitating property taxes in the nation. And, it’s only getting worse. Growing per-pupil costs – reportedly, the second highest level in the nation – are causing steep annual tax increases even though school enrollment across the state has been in decline. In 2015, The Providence Journal stated that Vermont homeowners on average “spend more than $49 of every $1,000 in income on property taxes.”
To address this problem, the legislature passed Act 46 last June. It enables school districts to voluntarily consolidate in an effort to increase efficiency and curtail expenses. House Republicans pushed for the law to include important cost containment measures in the form of two-year spending caps for each school district. The district threshold was determined by its per-pupil expenditure (the average cap was 2%); exceeding the threshold would result in a penalty.
The Vermont branch of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the nation, expressed disapproval of Act 46 and called for its removal. It claimed that budget restrictions would adversely affect the quality of education. Succumbing to the demands of the teachers’ union, House Democrats introduced an amendment in late January that removed Act 46’s spending caps altogether. The amended bill bulldozed its passing in a rare midnight legislative session.
“Vermonters wanted the legislature to reign in education costs and the House Republican Caucus fought hard for the cost containment measures in Act 46, which I strongly believe had begun to work. The legislature should not have modified them in this session.” House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner (R-Milton) concluded. Reports since then have shown that a number of school districts have dipped into their reserve funds to avoid paying the penalty. Though these efforts will translate into lower property taxes this year, this trend will not continue in the future now that Act 46’s cost containment measures have been repealed. In effect, Vermonters will once again face the same fiscal crisis.
In addition to exacerbating the spending crisis, Act 46 results in another devastating consequence – the loss of school choice. Rep. Vicki Strong (R-Albany) explains, “Vermont has a proud 150-year old heritage of full school choice, known as tuitioning, in over 90 towns. However, school consolidation efforts mandated by Act 46 have led communities (such as Westford and Elmore) to surrender this privilege when merging with non-school choice towns. In addition, public and independent schools in many towns like Craftsbury, Wolcott, and Walden are facing several unintended ramifications including the risk of losing students. Such outcomes were never the intent of Act 46 for many of us who serve in the legislature.”
Turner adds, “The loss of school choice stands contrary to the intent of House Republicans who supported passage of this law. We believe this is clear in the language of the law but if it is not so, then we will need a clarifying legislative fix to the underlying statute pertaining to school choice.” Rep. Heidi Scheuermann (R-Stowe) is addressing that very need by co-sponsoring a bipartisan bill (H.579) that would allow “certain merging districts to both operate a school and allow for tuitioning of those same grades.”
Republican legislators have proposed a number of other steps to promote cost-efficiency and productivity of the school system. These include implementing statewide teacher contracts and school calendars, and utilizing a simpler and more transparent funding formula with regards to public education financing. “The accusation frequently bandied about that Republicans care more about the budget than the future of our children is plain false,” Turner asserted. “We are as committed to bettering student outcomes as we are to improving the efficiency of our school system. However, as we work toward ensuring a bright future for the next generation of Vermonters, we must permanently fix the present unsustainable cycle of spending.”